Michael Rea’s Wooden Wonderland for Nerds

October 24, 2011 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Jeriah Hildwine

The Elmhurst Art Museum’s recent exhibition, “Michael Rea: Soirée” (July 8 – September 4, 2011) brought together a large grouping of this artist’s work.  I caught the show just a couple of days before it closed, and it gave me a chance to reflect on Rea’s work.

Michael Rea is a sculptor, with a 2007 MFA from UW Madison, and is represented in Chicago by Ebersmoore.  His past exhibitions have included a group show at Unit B in Pilsen, run by Kimberly Aubuchon, the Rockford Midwestern, and a solo show at Butcher Shop Dogmatic, run by Michael Thomas.  That show led to his meeting Ed Marszewzki, who invited him to participate in the Version Festival and represented him through his artist management identity Reuben Kincade.  In January 2010, Rea was included in a group show at Western Exhibitions, which led to a solo show at Ebersmoore, and representation by them.  They showed his work at the Special Projects section of NEXT, and his solo show at Ebersmoore was in November 2010.

Rea makes things out of wood.  For the most part, they’re stereotypically masculine sorts of objects:  robots, weapons, and lots of references to nerd culture like Star Wars.  The wood is left pointedly unfinished and has the look of a plain, light wood like pine, fir, or poplar.  The surface and visible construction of the objects makes them very approachable, inviting.  You want to hold them, to touch them.  They are as much toys as they are works of art.

Jeriah Hildwine with work by Michael Rea, at Ebersmoore.

Rea’s show at EAM closed on September 4th, but his work didn’t have to stay in storage for long.  “Tsavo Manhunters,” his lion-hunting mech, appeared shortly thereafter at the Chicago Urban Art Society, where it was included in the exhibition Wood Worked, curated by Chicago Urban Art Society’s Co-Founder and Chief Curator, Peter Kepha, along with CUAS Pop-Up Satellite Space Curator Kevin Wilson.  Mike Rea’s work is virtually synonymous with the theme of Chicago artists working with wood, and would have been extremely conspicuous by his absence had he not been a part of that exhibition.

Not included in that show was Conrad Freiburg, who also does some very impressive woodwork, although he works in other media as well, and typically uses wood as a means to an end, whereas Rea uses it for its own sake.  I think of these two artists in contrast with one another.  Freiburg uses a variety of carefully chosen woods, the color and grain of each being selected for a specific purpose, and shapes them with a meticulous fit and finish to serve as beautiful vessels for some pretty far-out ideas.  Rea on the other hand uses plain wood, typical hardware-store pine, and frequently assembles it with a less-is-more aesthetic, numerous dowels and half-rounds and slats cut and assembled into fantastic forms, but with their nature still clearly visible.  In other areas (the clenched fist on “Suit for Stephen Hawking,” the lions’ heads in “Tsavo Manhunters”) small, shaped blocks of wood are assembled into complex forms, asserting their “woodenness” particularly by seeming so much the wrong material for the job.

Michael Rea, "Olympia"

Not that Rea’s commitment to wood is absolute.  In “Olympia,” a sort of Star Wars/Nirvana scene in which Chewbacca appears to reenact Kurt Cobain’s in-bed suicide (with his trademark bowcaster in place of Cobain’s shotgun), burlap, rope, and yarn serve alongside the wooden bed and bowcaster.  Chewbacca’s fur is brown yarn, and his missing head is replaced by a spray of strands of red yarn.  Red yarn serves as blood in other of Rea’s works, including the hilariously titled, “My Anaconda Don’t Want None,” in which the eponymous snake (made of wood, of course) is cut into several lengths and impaled on a stake (suited to the exhibition, “Heads On Poles,” at Western Exhibitions).  Each of the snake’s wounds is created by a mass of dripping red yarn.

We accept the yarn as blood, and ropes as coax cables, and so on, because of their context.  The unpainted wood, the visible seams, and the milled mouldings give us permission to suspend our disbelief:  they are honest enough about what they are, that we don’t fear being thought foolish for not questioning them.

Jeriah Hildwine is an artist, educator, and art writer for Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.

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