“I'm an artist” sounds romantic. Maybe even dangerous. And if someone says it to you, then it turns out you do run in circles that sometimes include artists. Which means you're not most people. Which means you might have the good sense not to reply by saying, “What do you paint?” Instead, your better rejoinder might be: “What kind of art do you make?”
Now imagine that the artist's response comes without hesitation, rumbling with confidence: “I make crows from tires.”
That's how I like to imagine conversations about work go for Randy Gachet—or at least how they used to go. These days, one of the mainstays of Birmingham's art community has a straight job, too: Gachet has been an instructor at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) since 2002, so by now he might be as likely to define himself as a teacher as well as an artist. Professional titles aside, he does make crows from tires and has for a long time—the flocks (or more properly, the murders) he has made in the last decade have included hundreds, maybe thousands, of crows. He transforms sidewalls, steel belts and ripped rubber treads into textured feathers, wings and beaks. He has had shows that were all crows and installations in which he added the birds to various built environments and at least one in which tire-parts-as-crows were ensnared alongside tire-parts-as-tire-parts in a massive tornado made of woven wire. But in the last few months, Gachet has been working beyond the bird. Crows will certainly show up in the solo exhibition that opens Monday, Feb. 1, in the visual arts gallery at Samford University. The site-specific installations will also include other exploration and experimentation—more metaphors made of industrial materials sculpted into scenes that resemble nature, as well as the supernatural.
Working artist, teaching artist
Gachet graduated from Shades Valley High School and completed his bachelor's degree in fine arts at Birmingham-Southern College (BSC) in 1987.
In 2002, when BSC sculpture professor Robert Tucker announced his retirement, BSC alumnus and then-ASFA instructor Jim Neel joined the college art faculty and Gachet got a call about the job at ASFA.
"As fas as teaching high school, I'd had some apprehension," Gachet says. "But it was clear that the school was looking for a working artist—someone who could teach studio practice based on his own studio practice."
I ask him whether teaching has changed his own art-making.
He replies, “Absolutely,” then falls silent for a few moments to craft a more thoughtful reply.
“There's a symbiotic trade-off of energy—it's a nexus of steady income and an emphasis on studio work that inevitably has an effect on my studio work. It's exciting seeing students make discoveries. Teaching can be rewarding and draining. No question it's allowed me to do some things I really wanted to do.”
Gachet remembers encountering ASFA graduates as his undergraduate classmates at BSC. “It surprised me then how advanced they were, and the students I teach now surprise me in the same way,” he says.
“Were you supporting yourself as an artist before you started teaching?” I ask.
“Not at all,” he says with a laugh. “But I was always making art and trying to exhibit as much as possible. I was fortunate that there's a pretty cool art community here.”
When Jessica Helfrecht founded Bare Hands Gallery in the mid-1990s, Gachet was one of the first artists to show his work there. He also worked full-time at Maralyn Wilson Gallery for nine years. The job allowed him to piece together enough time and money to piece together a significant body of work, too.
His position at Maralyn Wilson included framing art and helping to design exhibitions for other artists; both job requirements gave him experience in construction and carpentry. "I wandered into residential construction for awhile," he remembers. “Around 1997, I broke off with some guys and started doing remodeling and framing-carpentry. And that's when I started seeing tires.”
Working in construction meant a lot of driving around. A lot of driving around meant seeing lots of tires—not only those turning beneath trucks and cars, but tires torn apart and left in shreds in the median and on the shoulders. After awhile, the ragged rubber tatters along the roadside didn't look to Gachet like tires at all. Instead, they looked like crow feathers. The back door of the Maralyn Wilson gallery faced a dumpster that belonged to a Lakeview dive bar. Crows were always crowded around the area, which gave Gachet a lot of time to study them.
“I was always seeing crows,” he remembers. “I began to get fascinated by them— physically, the colors of them, how they look, how they move. The crow is a resourceful creature, a carrion bird. And Joseph Campbell's works on world mythologies had really influenced me: The crow is a very interesting character in all kinds of mythologies.”
In his artist's statement, Gachet calls the crow “a supreme scavenger,” noting that the bird's ability to find sustenance in decay provides a cyclical metaphor around which Gachet's work revolves, simultaneously evoking renewal and fate.
“When you see pieces of a tire that's blown out, the rubber curls up and you can see the steel belts. They really look like crow feathers. I began seeing crows everywhere because I was seeing tires everywhere. ‘Is that a crow? No, it's a tire.’ ‘What about that? Is that a crow? No, it's a tire.’ One day I just finally pulled over and picked up some of it and brought it back to the studio.”
Creating the crow
Gachet soon realized he had a virtually endless supply of his chosen medium. “I've always been a collector,” Gachet says. “I've always been drawn to materials that already had a history, or a patina from time—weathered wood from old houses, found metal. The first things I made out of tire material—the first crows—I felt I was making a connection between contemporary art and this very contemporary material, this industrial material. But eventually, it became more about the environmental impact. The more I started collecting it, the more I thought, ‘Wow, this just never stops.’ I had never paid attention before. Driving around, of course I would see crows, too. There are always crows and there are always tires. In making this art, I've just kind of gone through a process of how far to manipulate it.”
Creating the crows evolved to mean more than just connecting the process with the material: Because Gachet cleans up a small area every time he gathers material for his art, it means that one stage of his art-making is an act of environmentalism. In gathering material, Gachet had an opportunity to raise awareness of the environmental impact that the material had—at the least, to raise awareness of the glut of it, if not the specific effects. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was an organic process that resulted in the activist bent. He says he has kept in mind a quote from the German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer: “I believe art has to take responsibility but it should not give up being art.” Although Gachet's art came to be about activism, it didn't originate with activism.
“The more material I collected, the more I had to explore,” he says.
As for the upcoming show at Samford, Gachet says that in some ways it represents a new chapter for him as an artist. He's exploring similar themes but working with new materials.
One reason for the changes is the result of Gachet being energized after attending a weeklong workshop last summer at the Anderson Ranch Art Center in central Colorado. Thanks to funding from the New York-based Surnda Foundation, Gachet had applied for and received a fellowship, designed specifically for teachers, the purpose of which was to advance or reinvigorate his practice as an artist. The workshop that Gachet and a half-dozen other artists took was led by Charles Long, a so-called “new genre” artist who emphasized an idea called “relational aesthetics,” in which sculpture is not an isolated object but something that sparks a social interaction.
Gachet describes Long as an amazing artist and teacher. The theme of the week became “radical discontinuity.” Long urged each artist to consider the conversation with reality that his or her work was having, to question the relevance of his or her work to the everyday. In Gachet's work, he was striving for environmental art that wasn't just commentary. Instead, Gachet sought to establish a connection between the industrial world and the natural world through his art—a process of returning industrial material to nature by erecting natural forms.
“I was still going to do what I was doing, but I was looking for a new way to do it,” Gachet says. “Looking at my work, Charles felt everything was a little too obvious. ‘You're giving them too much,’ he told me. ‘'You've got to show them something different, take them off guard. Instead of two plus two equals four, it's got to be more like two plus blue equals yesterday.’”
Taken out of context, the advice sounds almost incomprehensible, but the impact that it had on Gachet's work is evident. He refers to the summer workshop as “discovery time.”
“What has happened didn't happen there, but what happened there is continuing to influence my work,” Gachet says. “It gave me permission to play again.”
Flying home from the Colorado workshop, Gachet continued thinking about radical continuity. He wrote a list of action verbs, imploring his future self to engage the viewer without being too obvious. He wrote:
“You know, the thing about the crows, they gave me so much and I did so much with them—the commercial galleries, Kentuck... The discovery sort of wears off, but you continue to work with the materials, the themes. James Nelson, the longtime art critic for The Birmingham News said to me, ‘It's amazing what you can do with this tire material, but I don't know if you can base an entire career on the crow.’”
“I gave myself permission to do some different things for this show,” Gachet says. “It's been exciting but challenging—painfully challenging—at the same time.”
The innovations in Gachet's recent work are also due in part to the freedom he (or any artist) enjoys when creating art to be shown in an academic setting instead of a commercial gallery.
“Being at ASFA, I've felt freed up to think outside of the gallery mentality,” he explains. “Instead of creating single objects, I've been able to focus on building environments. And I don't really feel like my work is site-specific, but I do like to think about the space where I'm showing. At Samford I knew there would be some challenges with the space.”
What may be the centerpiece of the Samford show is a massive installation titled “Bricolab”—the title is a play on the French word bricolage, which refers to a post-modern art technique where works are constructed from various materials on hand, plus a suffix suggesting an aesthetic laboratory where the artist could carry out experiments. Gachet combined some handmade assemblages of found materials—old PVC pipes, styrofoam, concrete boards, plaster bandages. Drawing inspiration from exposed pipes, he built up corrosion with paper-mâché material. Liquid appears to be dripping from spigots in fat, globular drops. An open-mouthed crow is suspended near the top of the assemblage, appearing to dive downward with a caw.
“I was totally into the idea, too, of adding my own lighting,” Gachet says. “I really wanted to change the space as much as possible.”
Industrial lamps became elements in the sculpture. Gachet has plied his installations with layers of objects and materials, bringing the act of creating the artwork into the space where it's displayed. There are little details meant to confound, to bewilder, even to aggravate. The overall effect is that the viewer is compelled to look longer, to look again, to furrow her brow and tilt her head sideways, perhaps circle the Bricolab a few times, in the hope that the view from the other side will somehow bring this side into focus.
“Not everybody is going to like this,” Gachet says. “But I want something about it to say, ‘You're not where you thought you were.’”
The Samford University “Visiting Visual Artists” series presents the sculpture of Randy Gachet starting on Jan. 25. The Samford Art Gallery is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekdays; an artist's lecture and reception will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 4:30-7 p.m., and the exhibit runs through Feb. 26. For more information, call (205) 726-2840. You can view Randy Gachet's work online at his website: www.randygachet.com
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