Painter/sculptor Clark Derbes has been working with wood for some time now, transforming chunks of maple, butternut, and elm into lovingly crafted objects that seem to communicate with viewers on some higher plane. Photographs of his work simply don’t do justice to the physical reality of the sculptures, nor capture the way they continue to reveal new aspects the longer you gaze upon them.
“The Doors of Perception: Recent Sculpture,” the title of Derbes’s current exhibition at the Marcia Wood Gallery, is the perfect descriptor for the show. The artist, who grew up in Louisiana but currently resides in Vermont, uses a chainsaw to create mesmerizing polygonal shapes that become virtual shapeshifters, whether they are displayed on a pedestal or mounted on the wall.
A prime example of this is Mike, a carved, polychromed silver maple creation, which has the uncanny ability to look both flat and three-dimensional at the same time (a quality most of the works share). What looks like a panel of three boxes with exposed interiors is a delightful illusion, enhanced by alluring shades of green, blue, rust, charcoal, pink, and purple. The overall perception of depth gives the impression that one could actually insert a hand into each box, which is part of the appeal of the artist’s trompe-l’œil technique.
All of the pieces bear the names of people, perhaps serving as homages to Derbes’s friends and family. Or, it may be, they were chosen by him because that particular name best fits the personality of the work in question. Whether there is a personal backstory behind each object is not something the observer could possibly know, nor is it really important. What vividly comes through in each work is a palpable sense of shape, color, and texture that can trigger thoughts and feelings that are beyond the purely instinctual.
Derbes’s process begins with carving his unconventional shapes, which are then painted with gouache in a variety of intricately detailed patterns that can be as complex or frenetic as Keith Haring’s and Sol LeWitt’s wall murals (Derbes has acknowledged Haring and LeWitt as influences, along with Jean Dubuffet). He then sands the pieces down, finishing them with a notepaper rub. The final effect has an irresistible tactile quality, as in the case of Grace or James. When I rubbed my finger over the surface (with permission, of course), the texture was closer to smooth silk or satin with no trace of the rough grain.
I found myself drawn again and again to the cool Mediterranean blue and white beauty of Kara, which looks like a perfectly preserved artifact from some past civilization, or maybe a futuristic one. Other critics of Derbes’s work have noted a timeless quality in these painted sculptures, encompassing elements from Southern vernacular art traditions, as well as contemporary influences.
Gregory is a superior example of this primitive/modern approach. When I first saw it across the room, Gregory looked like some dark, mysterious metallic object right out of the sci-fi universe of Dune or some other future world. Upon closer inspection, it reveals itself to be a meticulously detailed marvel of symmetrical patterns and grooves, making one forget it was once an ordinary piece of silver maple.
I also love the rough-hewn, semi-painted quality of Eloise, in which Derbes allows the viewer to perceive both details of his process, as well as the natural surface beauty of the American elm, used as his base. The cracks and ruptures caused by checking in the wood actually add intriguing details and character to the work. You can’t get more organic than that.
“The Doors of Perception: Recent Sculpture,” which runs through November 15, is Derbes’s first solo show in Atlanta, though he was previously featured in a group show at Marcia Wood. I suspect (and hope) that Atlanta will be seeing a lot more of his work in the years to come.
Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening, and other favorite topics for various digital publications.