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Robert Ortbal Benign: Growth and Neglect

Robert Ortbal Benign: Growth and Neglect

Wiegand Gallery Notre Dame de Namur University

The Wiegand Gallery at Notre Dame de Namur University is proud to present Benign: Growth and Neglect, an exhibition of sculptures by Bay Area Artist Robert Ortbal. I first encountered Robert Ortbal’s work at a solo exhibit at Four Walls Gallery in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. The work in that show contained quiet whispers of Arte Povera as well as the prevalent Los Angeles Scatter/Garbage art scene of the time, yet something much more was present in the works on view. My first take on looking at the works in that show, what I felt rather than thought, was not so much cerebral, nor intellectual, but more of a powerful resonance emanating from deep within the forms presented. There were, as I recall, windows covered with banded streams of metallic cassette tape innards that fluttered in the subtle breezes kicked up when one walked past. A large, silver alien-looking form sat on the floor. Made from kneaded aluminum foil, it was hollow yet solid, formless yet with form, utilizing an intricate patterning of positive and negative form -- non-form sensibility throughout. There were other pieces too, but what I remember most from that show was an overall sense of wonder, amazement, and surprise; something akin to the feeling one gets when poking around in tide pools at the beach and discovering the multitude of unfamiliar looking organisms inside. And knowing that they all have their own function, with some sort of fundamental purpose and right to existence, yet not quite knowing what it is or being able to articulate it in an intellectual discourse. Ortbal’s artworks do not communicate any sense of contrivance, instead they are quietly present forms, originating from where I cannot say; they tend to have a nearly primordial – always-been-here kind of quality. Though at the same time, we easily can recognize the wit, intellect, and playfulness of a contemporary American artist in them as well, manifest through some type of creative process in a Bay Area Studio using materials one could purchase at Costco, Home Depot, or the Dollar Store. I have oftentimes thought of Robert Ortbal’s work as a kind of artistic alchemy, a delightful transmutation forged by taking everyday (and not-so-everyday) industrial materials into a zone of nerve-cluster-like ganglionic sculptural forms that intrigue, inspire, entertain, yet deny categorization or definition. If you talk with the artist, he will tell you about the numerous thought forms he has invested into these sculptures and his sculptural process: from investigations of architectural structures of scents, to explorations of the intricacies of rococo flux and flutter. Yet ultimately, the journey is his own, and when contemplating the works with your own eyes and mind, the journey becomes your own.

For years, I have wondered what kind of installation Robert Ortbal would do if invited to exhibit his work at the Wiegand Gallery. The rough quarried stone walls, and the dialogue they initiate between the various materials that the gallery is constructed of, makes this anything but a neutral space -- one I find inspiring as well as no doubt a challenging one for an installation oriented artist to work with. There is a transformative sensibility to the space that I find parallels the work of this artist. A 19th Century Carriage house is transformed into a contemporary exhibition venue yet retains some of the essence of its original form and purpose. As it is with Ortbal’s works: on close inspection we see and recognize styrofoams, epoxy resins, brightly saturated hues of flocked paint coatings, cast-off bits of wire and so on. They are not fully hidden and sing their own quirky shrill songs. Then we take a step back and another form emerges, our awareness shifts. And when we view them presented against the rough stone walls of the gallery space, further shifts occur, forms appear and dissolve, open and close. The space too is transformed into a pseudo-organic entity. As the best of shows always do, the individual pieces and space unite, and the experience becomes one that is singular, while at the same time retaining something of its dualistic structure. I would like to offer thanks and appreciation to Maw Shein Win for her poetic responses to the artistic pieces in the show, and to DeWitt Cheng for his catalog essay on Robert Ortbal’s work. This exhibition would never have come to fruition without special assistance from Wiegand Gallery Coordinators Simone Baer and Ellen Howard, also many thanks to NDNU Art Department Chair Betty Friedman, and Wiegand Gallery Director Robert Poplack. Their work has been invaluable. Thanks also to Matt Farruggio for his photographic expertise, and to Matt Matsuoka for his photographic and graphic design skills. And of course I offer my gratitude and many thanks to Robert Ortbal for his tireless work in bringing these artworks and this exhibition into being.

Paul Bridenbaugh Curator

Architecture of a Scent: Ginger - 2009

Architecture of a Scent: Cattails | 2007

Architecture of a Scent: Nutmeg | 2008

Material description, 11” x 12” x 89”

cut foam and dissected fake flower parts 29” x 23” x 6”

wire, plastic grapes, aqua resin, fiberglass, metal flake paint, flock, 44” x 38” x 27”

topographical source | 2005

Architecture of a Scent: Lilies | 2008-09

foam, wire, paint 43” x 45” x 15”

styrofoam, wire, paint and flock 53” x 50” x 48”

Tropisms On the stairway of the Tower of Victory there has lived since the beginning of time a being sensitive to the many shades of the human soul and known as the A Bao A Qu. It lies dormant, for the most part on the first step, until at the approach of a person some secret life is touched off in it, and deep within the creature an inner light begins to glow. At the same time, its body and almost translucent skin begin to stir. But only when someone starts up the spiraling stairs is the A Bao A Qu brought to consciousness, and then it sticks close to the visitor’s heels, keeping to the outside of the turning steps, where they are most worn by the generations of pilgrims. At each level the creature’s color becomes more intense, its shape approaches perfection, and the bluish light it gives off is more brilliant. But it achieves its ultimate form only at the topmost step, when the climber is a person who has attained Nirvana and whose acts cast no shadows... —Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings Robert Ortbal’s sculptures are richly provocative, enigmatic, and humorous. With their real seedpods, burrs, and thistles, and their artificial structures made of undisguised metal, plastic, wire and foam, they hint at some mutation of plant life and gadgetry, but also, to the engaged imagination, a swarm of other associations. They invoke the natural world without resorting to naturalism or realism, and they glory in their overt artificiality without lapsing into decoration. In a brief review of his 2008 Traywick Gallery show, I wrote: As contemporary art has largely abandoned the traditional “realistic” depiction of the natural world, it has also embraced lowly manufactured items to convey the old modernist message of art’s power to remake the world, but with playful postmodernist irony. The sculpture of ... Robert Ortbal ...explore[s] how humans and nature interact: Ortbal defamiliarizes the plant kingdom with his witty, bizarre floral arrangements in Neverland, its title perhaps a reference to Barries’s and Disney’s magical kingdoms. Ortbal’s materials — wire, flocking, latex tool handle dip, Styrofoam balls, glossy stickers, mirrored mylar, plastic grapes, resin— derive from hardware stores and perhaps from florists’ and decorators’ establishments, but the artist imbues his synthetic fabrications with an uncanny poetry. They’re both absurd in their exuberant vitality and sculpturally intriguing.1 Ann Elliott Sherman2 also noted the artist’s serious playfulness, adding: “Ortbal gives everything equal weight. His touch with the materials is light, seeking not to transform them into something else but put their essential qualities to effective use, so that each thing is recognizably itself and also part of something more...the artist allows that... the world we live in is already a blend of the artificial and organic.”

Meridians: Second Principal | 2008-09 10

wire, dissected fake flower parts, fabric balls, tree branch cotton pads, paint and flock, 130” x 48” x 30”



a second before the last | 2006

Meridians: First Principal | 2008-09

foam, wood, paint, seed pods, fabric balls 23” x 30” x 21”

wire, dissected fake flower parts, fabric balls felt, foam, mirrored mylar,paint, flock, fiberglass 127” x 54” x 28”


That synthesis of dichotomies is the first thing viewers note in the work. In a second before the last, a geometric structure of rods suggestive of molecular models and Tinker Toys is covered by spheres, both fuzzy and spiky, suggesting an onslaught by pollen, cells or sea urchins. In Meridians: Second Principal, a spindly, delicate structure clings to the gallery’s rough stone wall; from its top dangle small spheres that suggest the planets in an astronomical model; at its bottom are “flowers” that resemble the electrode attachments for electro-encephalogram readings, or deodorant pads; with its taproot or spine, which, incidentally, holds a bit of tree branch painted and flocked a deep spiritual blue, it analogizes plant and human life; and its title links the imaginary lines we bestow on the cartographically considered planet with those we project onto our bilaterally symmetrical bodies, as in acupuncture diagrams. The allusiveness of Ortbal’s hard-won poetry, however, is elusive: it resists being reduced to mere nature/culture “hybridity.” In the Kurosawa film, Rashomon, accounts of the same dramatic event by three participants or witnesses contradict each other: truth is subjective. In a famous Indian parable, five blind men confidently but incompletely describe an elephant as, variously, a tree, a wall, a tree stump, a rope, or a snake, all failing to grasp the entirety. In our open-ended, polyvalent postmodern era, with its multicultural lack of an over arching cultural narrative or myth, and its perpetual barrage of information, the temporary illumination of the partial view or aspect would seem to be the most that we could reasonably expect. Despite his acceptance of human contingency and esthetic artifice, Ortbal is no passive postmodernist recycler of media images. His sculptures, for all their glorious oddness, are imbued with a mysterious anthropomorphic presence that challenges viewers to analyze their emotional as well as their intellectual responses. The artist once likened the repeated dipping of earlier pieces into beeswax to an oyster’s gradual coating of a sand grain creating a pearl, considering “pain as the root cause and inspiration for ... new growth.” Now, regeneration is a theme that informs all of the work, and the idea of psychic wounding as a goad to creativity, is, of course, an old, romantic one, but if we consider the irritant as a stimulus, something to assimilate and transform, then viewers can re-enact the artist’s creative search as we examine the work in a self-aware, phenomenological manner. The works ask us to question our presence and participation in the natural world, which is gradually fusing with the cultural world. They do not bemoan human activity; they imagine, sometimes humorously, a new cooperation — regeneration. They are metaphors for nature and culture intertwined and interdependent.


Metaphors, which analogize one thing to another, also imply metamorphosis. (It is telling

Benign: Growth and Neglect | 2008 steel, styrofoam, dirt, roots, paint, flock 34” x 33” x 14”


that the artist found inspiration in the “minor” decorative arts of the elegantly playful Rococo and Art Nouveau styles of the early 18th and late 19th centuries, respectively; both feature stylized sinuous lines and a fanciful cross-disciplinary melding of animal, vegetable and mineral motifs.) Picasso’s sculptures are good examples of metaphorical ambiguity and double identity: a bicycle seat and handlebars metamorphose into a bull’s head; a toy car metamorphoses into a baboon’s head. Ortbal3: “When you’re making hybrid form it almost always speaks of things from the sea, because when you’re looking at, say, coral, it’s an animal that looks like a plant. It automatically has that ability to cross over and be slippery in its classification ... I’m after essences...I try to understand patterns in nature and how they combine and interact with human nature.” The artist also speaks of his ambition, one held in common with early twentieth-century abstractionists and surrealists, to create form depicting mental states “beyond our physical perception.” Synesthesia, e.g., the “seeing” of sound, or the “hearing” of color, is a hybrid sense with which some people are endowed (including Kandinsky, if I remember correctly). Ortbal, who has synesthetically entitled one series of pieces The Architecture of a Scent, said4, “I search for the hidden growth within real and imagined spaces to articulate psychological states of being.” His metaphors, then, stand for the natural processes of birth, growth, decline and decay, but also for culture — for mental states and processes; they are metaphors for being sentient in the world — for being, in Ortbal’s words, “chemistry and consciousness.” The fact that they’re made not of the traditional “noble” materials of bronze, marble and gilt, but of humble stuff found outdoors (seed pods, tree branches), scavenged from dumpsters (packaging foam), bought at dollar stores (toys, artificial plants, cotton balls, needles, plastic cups, fabric balls, flocking), big-box home fix-it centers (tool dip, spray foam, wire, paint, latex, hoses, chicken wire) or even art materials stores (beeswax, metal flake, resin) only makes these bundles of contradictions the more rich and wondrous. —DeWitt Cheng

1 DeWitt Cheng, “Model Magic,” East Bay Express, September 10, 2008 2 Ann Elliott Sherman, “Color Scales,” Metroactive, May 2, 1996 3 Quoted by David M. Roth, “Artist Profile,”Art Ltd., November/December 2008 4 Quoted in Oakland Museum press release for 2004 show at satellite Gallery 555,

Architecture of a Scent: Cardamom | 2007-09 steel, wire, styrofoam, plastic straws, paint, tire shavings 72” x 38” x 16”






Architecture of a Scent: Ginger | 2008

Mistletoe | 2008

wire, plastic straws, resin, flock, paint, yarn 53” x 55” x 37”

wood, soaker hose, wire, seed pods, foam, paint 11” x 12” x 89”




Cartographer’s Dilemma: Charting a Sneeze | 2008

Chords of Inquiry | 2006

mirrored mylar, foam, wood, aqua resin, wire, fiberglass, paint, flock 37” x 41” x 10”

wire, foil, resin, fabric balls, foam, paint, flock 24” x 16” x 16”


Neverland | 2008 styrofoam, paint and flock 30” x 30” x 30”



furred sound a partial recovery a bottle-green beetle inches its way across a limb

27 detail - Architecture of a Scent: Cattails - pg 7

ginger-orange flocking envelops wiry tentacles pleated spheres a flowering dilemma


detail - Architecture of a Scent: Ginger - pg 20

intuitive fountains & the bells’ allure a flock of bird cages in flight


detail - Hydra - pg 43

metallic flake, russet yarns slivers of ginger on the tongue botany and reverie the book of delight and other papers


detail - Architecture of a Scent: Nutmeg - pg 7

fervent seed pods hum airspun foam ruminates crescent feathers subside a starling in the echo lodge


detail - a second before the last - pg 12

5:47 pm a girl laughing in the attic a copperhead coiled in the brambles a hedgehog sleeping in the grove a slice of orange drops on the carpet

detail - Architecture of a Scent: Lilies - pg 9


where do the fireflies alight? why does the eucalyptus slither? what is the origin of smoke? how are the shades drawn? when will the osprey awake? how does obsession count? how does the hay stack up? will they dream of faded suede? why honey and not salt? why does the sea foam?

Maw Shein Win detail - topographical source - pg 8



next to last | 2006

Hydra | 2007

wire, foam, latex, wood, paint, flock, fabric balls 36” x 23” x 20”

wire, foam, resin, flock, paint, tool dip 36” x 52” x 25”



Satellite | 2008

Parallel Questions: Growth and Neglect | 2008-09

foam, aqua resin, wood plastic cups, paint 16” x 18” x 16”

discarded shrubs, aqua resin, stryofoam, insulation foam aluminum, paint, flock 40” x 72” x 36”

Parallel Questions: Growth and Neglect | 2008-09 discarded shrubs, aqua resin, stryofoam, insulation foam aluminum, paint, flock 40” x 72” x 36”


Selected Solo Exhibitions:


Being There: 45 Oakland Artists, The Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA


Neverland, Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley, CA


Knowing you, Knowing Me, The Lab, San Francisco, CA, catalog


untold wrinkles, Jay-Jay, Sacramento, CA


Needle Art, Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, Bedford Gallery, Walnut Creek, CA


Oxygen’s Shadow, Cabrillo Gallery, Cabrillo College, Soquel, CA


20th Anniversary Exhibition, S.F.M.O.M.A. Artists Gallery, San Francisco, CA


New Kingdom, The Oakland Museum of California at City Center, Oakland, CA


Stirred Not Shaken, Refusalon, San Francisco, CA, catalog


seeing is believing, Pond, San Francisco, CA


Natural Phenomena, Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, Bedford Gallery, Walnut Creek, CA


Behind One’s Eyes, 1078 Gallery, Chico, CA


Cross Currents, Holy Names College, Oakland, CA


Lullaby, Four Walls, San Francisco, CA


Pro Arts Annual, Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland, CA, catalog


Between Red and Green, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose, CA


The Object is Bound, Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco, CA


as above, so below, Richmond Art Center, Richmond, CA


North by Northeast, Richmond Art Center, Richmond, CA


Taste and See, Ohlone College, Fremont, CA


Introductions, Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, CA

Selected Installations:



Wallworks III, Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley, CA


Reveries: Water and Sky, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Sacramento, CA


Eureka Fellowship Exhibition, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum


I am you, he is she, Oakland International Airport, Oakland, CA


above and beneath, Oakland Art Gallery, Oakland, CA


Pollinate, Bath Clubs, Miami Beach, FL


February’s Song, Sculpture Space, Utica, NY


Openings, 9-1-1 Media Arts Center, Seattle, WA

Selected Reviews:


What is Art for?, The Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA

Baker, Kenneth. “Is Small Beautiful.” San Francisco Chronicle, April 5, 1997


Fertile Waste, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Boulder, CO

_____. “Two New Outlooks on Conceptual Art.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 1996


Openings, San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, San Francisco, CA

_____. “Exhibitions: Pacific Dreams.” San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 1995


Host, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Artists Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Bonetti, David. “There is a ‘there’ at Oakland show.” San Francisco Chronicle, March 27, 2002


Navigate: breakfast and desire, AS IS, California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, CA

_____. “Fresh names, stale perspective.” San Francisco Examiner, July 20, 1990


Stones: The weight of ripening, Contract Design Center, San Francisco, CA

Buck, David. “Ornamentation: The Art of Desire.” Artweek, March 2006, Volume 37 Issue 2


Black/White? No neophyte, Opts Art Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Cheng, DeWitt. “Model Magic.” East Bay Express, Sept. 10, 2008, Vol 30 Issue 49


at the end of desire, Seeing Time Series, Kala Institute, Berkeley, CA

Cohn, Terri. “Needle Art.” New Art Examiner, September, 1999 Dalkey, Victoria. “Fall Preview: On & Off the Wall.” Sacramento Bee, September 23, 2007


Selected Group Exhibitions:

_____. “A Profession of Art.” Sacramento Bee, April 25, 2008


Work-A-Day, Blank Space Gallery, Oakland, CA

Dunn, Edward. “Ortbal, wrinkles and all.” Sacramento News and Review, Nov 8, 2007, Volume 19


Watershed, Snyderman-Works Gallery, Philadelphia, PA

Elliot Sherman, Ann. “Color Scales.” Metro, May 2, 1996


Chapter Two: A show of objects, New York Design Center, New York, NY

Fahey, Anna. “Spotlight: Robert Ortbal, Seattle Weekly.” August 10, 2000


Berkeley-Saki Exchange Exhibition, Saki, Japan

Hall, Emily. “Drive-By Art.” The Stranger Seattle, August 31, 2000, Vol. 9, No. 50


M Theory, Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Helfand, Glen. “Stirred Not Shaken.” San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 19, 1997


Ornament: The Art of Desire, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

Goldsmith, Meredith. “New Kingdom.” Artweek, Oct, 2004 #35 Issue 8


Needle Art: A postmodern sewing circle, A traveling exhibition visiting

Maclay, Cathrine. “The Light Fantastic.” San Jose Mercury News, April 12,1993

14 museums and art centers across the United States


Meeker, Cheryl. “High Concept Hand Work.”, November 2001 Morrison, Barbara. “Knowing You, Knowing Me.” Artweek, May/June, #30, 2000 Roth, David M. “Artist Profile.” Art Ltd, Nov/Dec, 2008 Sylva, Bob. “Vision, unclouded.” Sacramento Bee, December 2, 2007 Vaughn, Michael J. “Deck the Walls.” The Wave Magazine, December, 2005 Selected Catalogs: untold wrinkles, Jay-Jay, Sacramento, CA, 2007. Text by Diana L. Daniels Eureka, The Eureka Fellowship Awards 2002-2004. University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Text by Constance M. Lewallen

Robert Ortbal

Being There: 45 Oakland Artists, The Oakland Museum of California, 2002. Text by Philip Linhares Knowing You, Knowing Me, The Lab, San Francisco, CA 2000. Text by Dean Smith, Behind One’s Eyes, Gallery 1078, Chico, CA 1998. Text by Lisa Martel and Mary Stump

Benign: Growth and Neglect

Between Red and Green, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, 1996. Text by Sheila D. Pickett as above, so below, Richmond Art Center, Richmond, CA 1995. Text by Jeff Nathanson, Sandra Rodgers and Timothy T. Taylor

January 23rd to February 8th, 2009

Fellowships - Artists Residencies - Awards: 2004

Eureka Fellowship – Fleishhacker Foundation, San Francisco, CA


Sculpture Space, Utica, NY


Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, Edgecomb, ME


Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME


Graduate Research Award, Division of Graduate Research and Humanities, University of California, Davis

Wiegand Gallery Notre Dame de Namur University All text and essays Copywrite © Wiegand Gallery Paul Bridenbaugh, DeWitt Cheng and Maw Shein Win All Photographs Copywrite © Matt Faruggio and Robert Ortbal All artworks © Robert Ortbal Used by permission only. All rights reserved Catalog layout Matt Matsuoka Printed Edition One Studios, Berkeley, Ca


Cover: detail - Cartographer’s Dilemma: Charting a Sneeze- pg 22


Wiegand Gallery Development Board/Volunteer Council Karen Rhodes, President Joan Andre Simone Baer Hernan Bucheli John Carman John Curran Betty Friedman Ellen Howard Mark Lewis Gordon J. Loughlin William McDonald Dr. Jean Nyland David R. Packard Robert Poplack, Director Terry St. John Zeb Stewart Charles Strong Rod Titus Karen Tallackson Bacon Joan Ward

Wiegand Gallery Director’s Circle Gordon J. Loughlin William McDonald Karen Rhodes Wiegand Gallery Staff Robert Poplack, Curator and Director Betty Friedman, Design Paul Bridenbaugh, Guest Curator Ellen Howard and Simone Baer, Gallery Coordinators Wiegand Gallery Notre Dame de Namur University 1500 Ralston Ave Belmont, CA 94002 (650) 508-3595


Benign: Growth and Neglect  
Benign: Growth and Neglect  

Fine Art Catalog