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Dazzling Camouflage

Benjamin Funke at Black Faun Gallery



The new year at Black Faun Gallery in Eureka begins auspiciously with Dazzle Shjips, a solo exhibition featuring sculpture, film projections and two-dimensional works by North Coast artist Benjamin Funke. The show offers up an abundance of recent sculptural pieces featuring Funke's recent experimentation with new materials.

The exhibition title Dazzle Shjips alludes to the camouflaged warships of World War I. Dazzle camouflage, also known as razzle dazzle, was painted in hard-edge geometric patterns onto the hulls of ships in order to disorient attacking submariners who were hunting merchant marine and naval ships. The technique was developed and widely employed by visual artists on both sides of the conflict, the Allies and the Central Powers. Likewise, the desire to cloak, conceal and modify is at the heart of Benjamin Funke's newest works.

Working in the tradition of the Nouveau Réalisme (or New Realism) movement, the artist incorporates found objects that would otherwise be destined for the landfill, often combining multiple found objects into his three-dimensional compositions. There is a political and environmental dimension to his approach, in which, as an act of an intervention, he chooses to poetically recycle the consumer, industrial, advertising and media detritus that so oppressively clutters our world.

But Funke takes his repurposing a step further than the simple assemblage of found objects. Using epoxy clay, he encases the combined forms, applying a modeling technique that bears the obvious traces of his hands as he prodded and pulled the clay, coaxing the material to encapsulated objects, which he finishes in glossy color. The found objects are deceptive to the eye, seeming at once rigid and malleable, hard and soft, heavy and light.

These pieces generate an uncanny quality of feeling. It's the type of sensation that one has when confronted by a subject that is tantalizingly familiar yet concealed. Think of the human form standing upright while draped in a sheet. The mind simultaneously recognizes the human quality of the subject while involuntarily conferring all sorts of other attributes: ghost, phantom or angel. In Funke's new sculpture, the viewer is similarly challenged by echoes of the forms he culls from the industrial/consumer landscape. Through Funke's sculptural interventions, the detritus of throwaway culture is transformed into spectral objects of mystery, fascination and sometimes desire.

Funke's use of line takes a place of primacy in many of his forms. One motif that expresses itself repeatedly throughout the exhibition is a curving line. From small to large scale pieces, there are linear swoops, circles, arcs and harp shapes that invite the eye to dive through the spaces they describe. Many of the pieces combine closed with open forms that mutually generate a fun tension within the sculpture. The piece, "Untitled (Black Cherry)," 2018, has at its base a solid, closed form that is seemingly heavy and industrial. Then, erupting out of the base, spring wildly expressive lines create a drawing in the space of the gallery. The line excites, draws your attention, relishes in its own sinew and color while activating the space it shares with the viewer.

Entering the gallery, visitors will periodically encounter a sound that may or may not be familiar to them, depending on their age. Funke has set up old school, 20th century 16-millimeter movie projectors to project extended film loops of found footage on the walls of the gallery. As with his strategy to encase found objects, he has culled the footage from the media waste stream, manipulated its content, concealing the original subject. The result is hypnotic patterns of geometric shapes and color dancing across the wall.

The projectors and film loops also hold their own as sculptural objects. In order to make long running loops, the artist has rigged pulleys up toward the ceiling of the gallery and below the projector. The film runs through the projector, ascends toward the ceiling, down toward the floor and then back through the projector, the cycle of the film passing through the space of the gallery, echoing the swoops, curves, circles and arcs so prevalent in his surrounding static work. The percussion of the projectors' gears, the small colorful frames flitting by and the dancing light invite the viewer to slow down and meditate on the pleasure of the senses.

Benjamin Funke's exhibition Dazzle Shjips will run from Jan. 5 through Feb. 23 at the Black Faun Gallery (212 G St.) in Eureka. The gallery is open Thursday through Sunday.

Jack Bentley is a curator and artist who resides on California's North Coast.

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