"Like actors, artists are sometimes typecast. Based on his many public commissions, Anacortes artist Philip McCracken is usually cast in the role of nature sculptor, aka The Bird Artist. His much broader preoccupations are something of an art world secret, particularly in Seattle, where he has not had a comprehensive showing in many years. A new exhibition at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner aims to set the record straight, featuring a wide selection of pieces from over 50 years of McCracken’s career. Works span the range from representational, to conceptual and abstract. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, recently visited the exhibit, and here is his review.
Here in La Conner, a single work can upend one’s stereotypes about animal artists in general and Philip McCracken in particular — a sculpture entitled "Lights Out.." A stark response to the turbulent America of the late '60s, the work consists of a Plexiglas display case in which five real light bulbs have been mounted. Four of the bulbs have been exploded by gunshots, the entry and exit holes of the bullets clearly visible on the plastic walls, glass shards littering the display case floor. Bulb number five sits intact — awaiting its fate. Who pulled the trigger? The artist himself, both enacting and depicting the violence of the times.
This is a long ways from portraits of forest creatures and celebrations of natural wonder — work that, to be sure, is visible elsewhere in the exhibit. And it is not the only such piece. Nearby, a dark and sensuous slab of cedar sits on a pedestal, its top carved into gentle hills and valleys. Slicing through this surface are two knife blades shaped to evoke shark fins, kicking up wooden waves ahead, and trailing an ominous red stain behind. Three circular saw blades also tear through this landscape, with similar bloody results. There is a deep irony to the sculpture — the very saw blades and knifes that rend the earth are also the everyday tools of the artist himself. As with the rifle shots, destruction and creation are here deeply linked, the same tools used for vastly different ends.
For this man of the outdoors, the clash between nature and technology is clearly a preoccupation. In a section of the show entitled “Future/Past,” McCracken creates specimens of an imaginary archeology. Several very plausible-looking chunks of amber hold in suspension unexpected relics — hovering in one is the intact butt of a cigarette; floating in another, we find a glittering cloud of computer chips. Like so much else in the show, these pieces attest to both McCracken’s wide-ranging inquiry and his fluency with a vast array of materials.
And as with any artist cutting such a wide swath, there are both hits — like the imaginary archeology — and misses. One disappointment is a large array of wood sculptures entitled, "Fragments of a Night Sky." Arranged near the entry to the exhibit in a large semi-circle, these abstract and jewel-like blocks of highly polished wood are meant to evoke the awe and mystery of the firmament. But the dark, slab-like forms are too heavy and earth-bound to dematerialize in the manner required — the link is more cerebral than sensual. The best piece in this group, however, is another story, a golden and streamlined interpretation of a comet that can stand comparison with the similarly elegant statues of Constantin Brancusi.
And what of the assorted owls, herons, moles, and frogs? Here McCracken is clearly the most at home, as are we. Most of the pieces strike a fine balance between suggesting, in a highly sympathetic way, the essence of the creature in question, and standing quite on their own as satisfying sculptural forms. A perfect example is a wood sculpture of a pika on a mountain, appearing much more monumental than its 21 inch height might suggest. A tall, rounded block of dark-stained cedar supports the alert wooden rodent, the one form made necessary by the other.
Two of the very best of these works are among the most recent. "Two Owls and their Night Forest" distills owlness to its very essence, merely eyes in the night. And the work entitled, "Between Infinities" uses a bird to suggest the trajectory of existence, a flying form emerging from one block of wood only to be absorbed in the golden glow of another. No mere animal artist, McCracken uses depictions of the natural world as a springboard to the great beyond.