Worksound is a cavernous gallery that normally shows two or three artists at a time, so for a single artist to take on the entire space is a tall order. Happily, conceptual artist Bruce Conkle is up to the challenge. His ambitious, trippy Magic Chunks successfully lays out the environmental themes that have become a cornerstone of his work. With his unconventional methods and materials, Conkle is both empowered and bedeviled by the simultaneous gravity and levity of his work, which is not always easy for the uninitiated to decode. The materials he favors are low-tech and whimsical: stuffed animals, Sasquatch figurines, aluminum foil, snowmen, tanning-bed lamps, video game freeze-frames, and so on. Each has a specific symbolic and political meaning in Conkle's visual/conceptual vocabulary, but unless the viewer is fully clued in to these meanings, the work can come across as either cutesy or abstruse. So far, Conkle has not been inclined to write a manifesto or monograph laying his symbology out.
For the current exhibition, Conkle hangs Worksound's middle gallery with gilded tree burls, which embody his "Eco-Baroque" concept of exalting nature in ways both sincere and ironic. In the east gallery, his installation El Corazón del Viento (Avalanche Device) consists of a Swiss-style alpenhorn coated in drippy epoxy, the instrument wailing from speakers overhead as a projector throws geodelike silhouettes onto the wall. The piece stems from the artist's fascination with Switzerland, which in turn relates to his obsession with glaciers as harbingers of global warming. Finally, in the west gallery, the show's gee-whiz moment arrives with Middle Kingdom Earth is Fucked, a glorious abomination of sculpted foam hanging by chains, its tree-stump base supporting a reservoir of Pepto-Bismol, which flows upward through a tube into the sculpture's craggy contours, only to drip-drop through a suggestive orifice back into the reservoir below. It's like a chandelier by Ed Kienholz with a very upset stomach. The piece, Conkle explained on opening night, critiques contemporary environmental travesties, which, like the overeating and boozing remedied by Pepto-Bismol, are self-inflicted. The work, like the show as a whole, is audacious, absurdist and deeply poignant.
at Worksound, 820 SE Alder St., worksoundpdx.com. Closes Oct. 30.