Jeph Gurecka has cast chickens and stolen jack-o-lanterns in bondo, baked pentagram cherry pies, and made portraits from seashells. He once filled a castle in the Czech Republic with skulls cast in bread.
He's getting set for a solo show opening at 31 Grand Gallery on September 4.
On the Sunday afternoon I visited Jeph at his Brooklyn studio, the opening was a couple of weeks off. He explained he'd been working on this show for months, and hadn't had a chance to sleep in a very long time. It was obvious that preparing for the show had taken a toll on him, yet this seemed to be a necessary part of the process. The studio was a wreck, with junk scattered everywhere like fertilizer, and big sculptures seeming to sprout from the floor. With a dazed look in his eye, Jeph staggered woozily from piece to piece, sharing his inspiration and processes and explaining his intentions. Laughs came easily.
Joe Heaps Nelson: How come you do something different every time?
Jeph Gurecka: Well, I feel that I get stuck in a rut and it becomes too repetitive. When I have a new project in mind, I usually take whatever that idea is and find materials that will represent and support that idea. That's why it's constantly changing. The past work was more organic material such as bread, salt, soil, earth. In this series I'm using plastic material, which I think is in keeping with the argument "What is the natural world?" Our natural world is mostly plastic now.
JHN: So your starting point for this series is Thomas Cole, the Romantic painter, the Hudson River School guy. The show is called "Shiny Bright Souvenir". What's it all about?
JG: The souvenir is basically history. I'm fond of Romanticism, and its dramatic style.I'm not necessarily a Thomas Cole fan, but when I see paintings that grab me, I like to use it, no matter if I'm really into that artist or not. 18th century landscape/seascape painters were dealing with the idea of stepping into the sublime. In their case, the sublime provoked fear, but it was a safe, picturesque fear.
JHN: There's the idea that nature is awesome but man, possessing reason, is the master of nature. Is that what you're talking about?
JG: Yeah. Like Kant was saying with his theories of the sublime, the closest a rational person can get to the sublime without experiencing death or tragedy would be the idea of "the game", which created a sense of stepping into this unknown and having risks at stake. I'm trying in my absurd kind of way to think about "the game" in contemporary times. With our gambling casinos, our video game addictions and our cruise ship lines, we can see the world without experiencing any danger.
The Crystal Symphony Cruise Line at Storm relief is my little cynical joke ~ that it's leaving the constellation Aquarius and entering the storm. The absurdity is it's always placid waters you would see in an advertisement for a cruise ship.
JHN: We're looking at a wall work. It's an oval shape and it's wood, and there's a relief of a ship on violent, tumultuous water, crashing waves.The ship and waves are plastic, painted with white automotive enamel. In the background, the constellation Aquarius is described in freshwater pearls.
JG: The whole show is basically Romantic tchotchkes. The souvenir or trophy is usually presented on a piece of wood.
JHN: Oh, like a plaque.
JG: A plaque.
JHN: Why is the wood all scratched up?
JG: The wood is faked out to look old, like aged ship wood, barn wood, old wood. It's fucked with with many kinds of tools and devices. It starts to go old and tarnished, but it also tries to hold together some sort of atmosphere that the object is floating on.
JHN: There are a bunch of circular scores that could be wind blowing in this kind of stormy sky...
JG: Yeah, the rhumb line thing is an old seaman's nautical term for following a certain course of direction, but that course isn't really on parallel levels. It has this weird ellipse to it. A rhumb line is a strange course for a seaman to take. It's like longitude and latitude, but kind of fucked up, not on a normal parallel course.
JHN: Rhumb line? I don't know about that. Now I'm looking at a crazy giant mountain that's 6 or 7 feet tall with roots coming out of the bottom and it's all cast in resin and there's a Lincoln Log sort of house on top.
JG: It's called My Father's House. It has biblical connotations and also personal connotations with my birth father. I guess growing up Catholic, it never leaves you, build your house on rock.
My father has been restoring 17th century Pennsylvania log homes. He has this huge mansion he put them all together on, on top of this mountain with a 30 or 40 mile view. It's been his passion for years. I guess my father and I both have this struggle for individuality, trying to express our... gung-ho ideas, overcoming a lot of obstacles to get this idea manifested. So, it's a respectful piece.
It's also a very strange, ugly, membrane, phallic, what's the mythological creature, the Kraken! The Kraken was like this giant squid, it was just gross, and it would overtake ships and sailors and all this stuff.
JHN: But it's a mountain, which is the solidest ground you could build a house upon. It's funny when something is a mountain and a sea monster at the same time.
JG: It literally is a lighthouse. It will be illuminated from within.
Also, the house that's built on the rock is basically a Lincoln Log house. My inner joke was, as a child I tried to build a tree house, and my father didn't trust that I was doing it properly so he went and built me a whole barn. The joke is my idea of being a craftsman, but doing it in a simplistic way, regressing to my childhood in a sense, while my father was taking on these huge projects of real log homes. My joke is that I only have the capacity to do a little Lincoln Log house on this very adolescent mountain that's just shaped with clay and hands and nothing else.
JHN: But it's a pretty gnarly lookin' mountain!
When you're talking about overcoming obstacles, do you sometimes just change the rules of the game and make up arbitrary rules in order to give yourself something to overcome?
JG: Yeah, I think it really is about the challenge. I keep going to Pearl Paint every two years and I buy a bunch of paint and I think I'm gonna start painting, then I get these ideas that paint isn't enough, I'm not challenging myself enough, like a strenuous, taxing, having no fucking clue how it's going to come out... and not being able to go back over it again like you could with paint. The experimentation, and also just fucking with shit and seeing if I can make it happen, and usually the happy accident always works in my favor.
JHN: So you're just teaching yourself how to do things every time you have an exhibition, pretty much.
JG: Yeah, 'cause I get bored really quick. I like mixing it up. It's more interesting, not knowing what the next thing is going to be, for me and the viewer.
JHN: What made you get nautical this time around?
JG: I was reading this book, Sailing Around the World All Alone, the journals of this seaman called Joshua Slocum. He took a 30 foot craft and went around the world in the late 1800s. It's just amazing that you would not have that fear, only a 30 foot craft, he was already in his 50s or 60s when he did it.
He'd go to the Tahitian Islands where the barbarians live, and they attack his boat and he has to put thumbtacks all across his deck so he can sleep at night. If they jump on board he would hear them and blow them away with a shotgun. It's really whacked out, one older man doing this whole thing by himself. I've always had a love for the sea, but this book really nailed it for me. Being so alone and on this vast water is extremely Romantic.
JHN: So we're looking at the rest of the pieces in the show, and just giving you a preview, so if you read this before you see the show, you will know what is up. There's a siren...
JG: It's a cast white piece, also on faked out tarnished wood planks. The siren fits in obviously with the myth of the sea, the relationships between the sea and man and woman, and the loneliness of the sea. The siren leads sailors to their deaths.
JHN: Yeah, the siren is pretty dangerous. Odysseus is the only guy who heard the siren's song and lived because he had the crew tie him to the mast.
JG: You have to stuff your ears in order to not get killed by the siren. Let's talk about the whole vengeance of where the siren comes from in mythology, is the birth of Venus, because her father was castrated by his father and his testicles were thrown into the sea and created foam that gave birth to her. I mean, talk about man haters!
So it fits into the lighthouse theme too because the sailors wanted to believe that lighthouses were kept by females.
JHN: Maybe there's a female spirit in there... because you know it's always an old guy!
JG: Anyway the female on the wall is pretty hot.JHN: She's got tattoos too, which shows she's kind of a fun gal.
JG: Yeah. They're a little better than Sailor Jerry tattoos, but it fits in with the whole temptress chick.
JHN: There's also an owl taking form over here.
JG: To show how weird Catholics are, or Christians, the owl is a symbol for a siren. An owl could lead people to doing evil. I guess that probably was used when they were trying to take over paganism, I would assume.JHN: They wanted to take over that symbol, for some reason.
JG: The owl's always a protector, so I think the Christians wanted to change it to something evil, so they made it into a siren.
JHN. Wow. What's the chipmunk about?
JG: I think it lightens your load in the show. It's a little guy having an identity problem. It's referencing the whole hopeless projection of the entire show, this kinda bullshit Romanticism, of the tchotchke that's brought back from history and trying to be placed in contemporary thought, it's like this hopeless projection. The souvenir in general represents nostalgia...
JHN: It's something you can bring home, a little trinket to remember your trip.
JG: Right. And you always know the person that comes back and brings you a cheap tchotchke really doesn't like you that much.
The souvenir represents nostalgia, and if I may quote Neitzche, Neitzche states that nostalgia is a longing for the past, contempt for the present and the fear of the future.
JHN: That brings us to the tire, which is pretty much the only piece which isn't white. It's black, and it's cast, and it looks like a real tire.
JG: It's my homage to 9/11 I guess. In 2 or 3 weeks it will be the 7th anniversary.
I was always disappointed in all these patriotic slogans that were created for 9/11 that were supposed to be empathetic to the situation, but it seems that it was a product created to go straight to consumerism. These slogans were made to sell something.
JHN: This reminds me of talking to Cheryl Dunn, who lived in that neighborhood. She described to me how rapidly it went from a place of mourning and evolved into the scene of the most inane commerce possible. But, the piece is not finished as we're looking at it, so I'm not sure how it's going to look. It looks like a black, rubber tire. [Written on the side is "We Will Never".]
JG: It's an SUV tire, it's blown out in the one side, and it'll be sticking into the floor. As if we will never forget, we forgot what we were trying to make that was supposed to be honest and true. Any situation that's at its worst, the tchotchke can sell the best.
JHN: To cast all these things, you make silicone rubber molds.
JG: They take a perfect impression of anything you want to cast. I use nitrale gloves because silicone can be contaminated easily by anything that's latex. And there's a million of them laying all around!JHN: I gotta say, this place is a pretty big mess. Over there, I see... cast... plastic... balloons.
JG: Something a simple as a balloon was the most difficult thing for me to cast ever. I never had such a challenge.JHN: Well, it isn't hard, it's squeezable.
JG: Yeah, and it's latex so you can't treat it with any kind of chemical or it'll explode. Trying to put wet plaster on a balloon and keeping its form....JHN: Sculpture is a tough gig. Unforgiving!
JG: Do you know why I'm really fucked? Because I have to stay up all night, and I can't get wasted. I have to do all this detail work, and that's the most difficult. All this work, and I can't have a break.
JHN: Well the end is in sight, that's for sure!
JG: Right. Then I climb in a bottle and I never come out... for a while.
"Shiny Bright Souvenir" opens Thursday September 4, 7-9 pm, at 31 Grand Gallery, 143 Ludlow Street in New York.
The show runs through October 5.