JOSHUA PARKER COOMBS' steel and cement sculptures reference living organisms and their basic drives. The forms are simple pods, blobs and larvae, but the scale mimics the human body, making these unsophisticated "beings" into metaphors for the human experience. Energetic steel lines surround the rusted, steel bodies, growing like vines or crackling like electricity. They simultaneously appear to be expressions exuding from the bodies and cages that trap them. Joshua earned his BFA in 2002 from Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore and his MFA in 2009 from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. In 2014, his numerous Philadelphia exhibitions include group shows Un/Natural at the Sculpture Gallery, University of the Arts and Presence at Indy Hall, as well as his first solo exhibition From Within at PSG Gallery. Joshua is currently a member at the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym in Philadelphia, where he lives.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Do you think of your work as representational or abstract?
Joshua Parker Coombs: I think of it as both. I definitely use certain abstracted larva-like forms to reference human gestures. I also use the annular cell form to represent a rudimentary form of life to convey certain feelings or human experiences. In Shroud (2009), the larva-like form appears to be taken over by the brown cement texture. It’s accepting being overcome by this entity. The slumped gesture is meant to signify this surrender. In Conflict (2008) the cement texture is encroaching from one side and a linear steel element is attacking from the other side. It’s a take on the devil and angel on one’s shoulders and the tension two opposing feelings can create within a person.
These forms of basic life are the subjects of the sculptures. I for one often feel like a fledgling version of myself. At times it seems that all of the life experiences I’ve had are never enough, and I have yet to be formed completely. A stripped down representation seems fitting for the fundamental emotions I try to convey.
OPP: Tell us a little about the various processes you employ in your work and your history as an artist.
I was fortunate to have many 3-D and Ceramics classes early on in high
school and was able to take similar summer classes at a community
college. When I was an undergrad majoring in Sculpture, taking Fibers,
Ceramics and Wood classes was encouraged. I was fortunate to be able to
dabble in those areas. I fell back into Ceramics towards the end of
undergrad because of both the medium and the department faculty.
In graduate school, I really fell in love with welding steel armatures and experimenting with different materials in conjunction with them. I saw that process as drawing three-dimensionally. The larger scale was both encouraged and more fun. The armatures were pretty quick to build and many Ideas came from using the different materials and seeing how they worked together. One piece would lead to another in terms of materials and concept.
Due to the layering process of using armatures, I developed a theme of conceptual layering. One element would appear to grow into another, and then another element would be growing from it or on the surface of it. This process also forced me to plan pieces out more due to the technical needs of the sculptures and how they would convey my ideas.
I enjoyed using fabric with steel and that lead me to try to create a similar feel with the surface bonding cement. I started with pillow forms filling the inside of steel forms. This lead me to create interior hollow cement forms that appear to grow inside a cage-like form. I also attended a leather working workshop, which lead to an interesting process of forming the leather over cement forms I created.
My artistic productivity in the last few years is made possible by the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym. This is a maker space which gives me access to welding facilities. This allows me to continue and expand on ideas and themes that I touched upon in my schooling.
OPP: In earlier work, there seems to have been more of an interaction between hard and soft, as in Protection/Constriction (2009) and Garden
(2007). But in the last few years, you seem to working exclusively with
steel, paint, bonding cement and rust. Was this a conscious shift away
from soft materials?
JPC: The textile classes I took during grad school really influenced the hard and soft aspect. But I veered away from that to focus on more durable practices because the possibility of showing and storing work outdoors made more sense.
With cement, I was able to create different textures to represent different ideas. As in both Shroud (2009), Conflict (2008) and also Aura (2014) the blob-like texture acts like a slow-growing moss overtaking the body of the sculpture. I began exploring ideas which required erratic linear steel forms to emerge from other forms as I was able to weld over the cement forms. The energetic steel lines always read to me as a faster growing entity. This is evident in the latter two where the linear element is fighting against the other entity and also growing bigger from within, suggesting a greater achievement. In the piece Stabilitate (2014), I used a smoother, cement texture to simplify the surface, so that the linear element could be the focus. Structurally, the steel lines help the form stand upright, but this metaphorically represents the form finding it’s “footing” through an interior force.
OPP: What role does rust play in your practice, both formally and conceptually?
JPC: Rusting my work is a way to make an industrial material such as steel seem more natural and plant-like. It’s similar to creating pattern on fabric and works beautifully with distressed painted surfaces. It’s also just what happens to the material. It’s a natural occurrence. I do force it for deadlines but I like that it is continuing to change as works sit in the elements. Rust is literally a weathered condition and acts as a metaphor for showing age or experience as a being. It also works well with the common themes of growth and change.
OPP: In images of your 2009 Thesis Exhibition,
most of your sculptures are presented on classic sculpture pedestals,
but in other images on your site, they sit directly on the ground.
What's your preference and why?
JPC: For that particular show, I had many pedestals at my disposal. I also constructed some as a way to get larger heavier pieces into the gallery safely with a pallet jack. It’s always nice to see your work on a “perfect” white box in a white room.
But I also like to see them just existing in a space or outside environment. A lot of my work is a combination of “animal, vegetable and mineral.” I use organic forms and gestures, and I often hope there is a suggestion that these things just happened into the setting. I suppose my preference would be—at least at first glance—for the viewer to not even think they were made by an artist, but that they just exist. The “perfection” of a pedestal removes any chance of that happening.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, for O’Connor Art Gallery at Dominican University (River Forest, IL) opens next Thursday, November 5, 2015.