Los Angeles

Jared Pankin

Carl Berg Gallery

Jared Pankin’s practice combines sculptural precedents ranging from Baroque tableaux to post-Minimalist scatter with skills more commonly associated with set decorators, diorama builders, taxidermists, and Martha Stewart devotees. The results are quasi-narrative objects and installations fusing naturalism and realism (in scales shifting from the Lilliputian to the life-size) with romanticism, humor, and the decorative. This exhibition, Pankin’s first solo outing in seven years and his one-man debut at Carl Berg Gallery, included seven objects that draw one in with the intimate scale of their parts and dominate with their overall size and gestalt. They harness the dynamism found in some of the artist’s strongest past work while jettisoning much of the cuteness that sometimes hindered the weakest.

Pankin’s new works are scaled-down fantasy landscape fragments, all sharing the title Natural, Natural, History but differentiated by subtitles such as Devil’s Hand Out or Satan’s Sloop (all works 2005)—exaggerations of the sorts of names bestowed on oddball natural phenomena. Imagine a cross between bonsai trees, ikebana arrangements, and Disney’s California Adventure: Each work offers a variation on Brancusian interdependence of sculpture and base, consisting of a tortured outcropping of faux rock—roughly hewn and pieced together from bits of scrap lumber—and functioning as pedestal or shelf for tiny handcrafted trees.

Pankin nods overtly to the variety of sources from which he has taken lessons. In crafting, he takes cues from use-every-scrap bricoleurs, oddball woodworker-sculptors like H. C. Westermann, and model-train enthusiasts (note the palm-tree trunks carefully formed from paint and the pine bark glued to the carved trees, piece by tiny piece). In spirit, he backhandedly channels American landscape painters such as the conflicted romantic/pessimist Thomas Cole and westward-ho optimist Frederic Church. But his works really get their charge from a comprehension of dramatic space informed by the likes of Bernini and Anthony Caro and the spindly rock formations in Road Runner cartoons.

Lucifer’s Left Nut takes such referential jumbling to an extreme. A rock appendage, looking like a scrotum stretched to breaking point, juts out at eye level from a wall-mounted mélange of wood chunks that suggests the face of a cliff. The extension droops into a bulbous mass hovering just above the floor. From the descended ball rises the spindliest of palm trees. Beelzebub’s Boney Boney Backbone, meanwhile, is a geological erection, a cigarette-like minaret of piled boulders made from scrap wood, topped by a nearly barren conifer reminiscent of the spire atop the Chrysler Building. And in an absurdist echo of the phallic contest in which the architects of buildings like the Chrysler once competed to reach the greatest height, Pankin’s quasi-natural skyscraper stands, as if on stilts, on a cluster of dowels.

Pankin’s works are impressive studies of a kind of sculptural dynamism that seems heroic even while strained and stunted. They also serve as funny and poignant (but not preachy) metaphors for the relationship we have to a nature that inspires wonder most when it doubles as a freak show.

Christopher Miles