Arkansas Sketchbook

"Burrow No. 13"
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“Burrow No. 13” by Robert Lemming, 2015

The fact that it looks “natural” is largely why it’s so darn confounding. Because it slots well into expectations of what the natural world might look like if re-examined. A world of fleshy-colored Seussian landscapes, papillae and polyps of sea anemones and close-up views of the tongue. But there is, of course, the slightly unsettling notion that something is not quite right. Some vague and tough-to-define quality—that prickly, back-of-the-neck feeling you get seeing robots with molded rubber faces. When, somehow, you just know something’s off.

Because, with respect to one key metric, Robert Lemming’s work is not natural. When the Fayetteville artist does his work, it’s with epoxy resins, light plastics, translucencies, acrylic and hot glue. It’s the sort of material that lacks, as he writes in his artist statement on the Fayetteville Underground gallery, “historical baggage.” Material hard enough it won’t shatter like glass when he presses, say, a high-speed die grinder into the inch- or inch-and-a-half-deep acrylic surface, working in the negative as he hollows one side to achieve an effect on the opposite. (His previous training in printmaking and traditional photography helps considerably, he says.)

But still: It does seem odd that something smacking of the natural world could be so far removed from it. Some curious irony about the whole thing. But the truth is, there are connections linking his work, both past and present, inextricably to nature. Consider the Fucoid Structures: They’re these enormous mounted hot-glue sculptures that recall elephant ears and iris tongues. But really, they’re casts the artist made of fossilized burrows left by 300-million-year-old arthropods. (“[They] didn’t realize they were creating anything that would be of any significance,” he says. “They were just looking for sustenance, and it incidentally made something beautiful.”)

But even in his recent work, a series he’s dubbed Burrows (and is pictured above), there’s a parallel tie. It’s work that’s often dictated by the moment, sometimes requiring forethought, sometimes spontaneous (like when he dumped acetone on Burrow and lit it on fire). It is, as he is, its own challenge. “There’s this fight with it—like I kind of let randomness happen, and there’s a fight between controlling it and just letting it happen,” he says, “so that’s kind of my struggle.”

Robert’s work will be on display at the Historic Arkansas Museum from May 13 through August 7, 2016.