Expression and Experimentation

Following his rather uncomfortable and quietly defensive stint in the public eye with the Indo Arch, Walburg returned to exploring a variety of forms and media simultaneously. At the same time he continued to fabricate significant outdoor pieces in Cor-ten steel. More breathily lyrical, the asymmetrical balance of contrasting elements imparted a greater sense of humanity, even of humor, than the gravely serious and earthbound early Loops. These works were still based on preliminary maquettes and a construction process that precluded the possibility of improvisational construction.

Screen shot 2014-06-22 at 4.07.46 PMIn 1984 Walburg began his Sakti series, figurative works that continued to reference the sculptures found gracing Indian temples. Elegant verticals that utilized his typical formal vocabulary, several of the table-top copper maquettes were ultimately fabricated full size in Cor-ten steel. The late 1980s were a time of transition in Walburg’s work. “It became obvious to me,” he wrote later, “that I temporarily needed to pull back into the studio and concentrate on work, becoming less involved with galleries and the art scene in general….my attitude was changing.”

Breaking from both the intensity and the security of the Sakti series, he fabricated several distinct and idiosyncratic works. Most distinctive of the period was the stainless steel Extremes (1988), where two flattened boat shapes serve as header and footer for three spindly legs balancing the top component 7 1/2 feet in the air. This work, created during the year of the first Bush presidential election, expresses Walburg’s response to political extremism. During that same period, he created another political work, Election Year, of welded copper, whose exterior form references the shape of a gun barrel. His political commentary was specifically targeted on what he considered 1988’s “nasty” electioneering. He exhibited this work again ten years later, when Bush’s son George W. followed the same path.

The 1990s brought new and unexpected changes in Walburg’s work. He also began a series of works focusing on immediately recognizable body parts during this time in a variety of media, including monel and bronze, copper with vitreous enamel, and powder-coated steel. Although these works were laden with symbolic content, they were also yet another challenge that Walburg set up in order to “prove” to himself that he could produce realistic and compelling narrative works.

IMG_0094IMG_0073At that time Walburg had been building a house in rural Humboldt County in northern California; having a house in the country had been something he had dreamed of ever since his youthful days enjoying his aunt and uncle’s Russian River cabin. Although he was considering the house in Humboldt as a vacation or second home, his partner Tamara was convinced that he wanted to move there permanently, something she was dead-set against, having grown up in the country herself. During the period in which they were arguing about these future plans, she went off on a research trip, met another man, fell in love, and she and Walburg split. The sculpture, conceptualized during that dream-like state, demonstrates the characteristics of his own hand, with building nails piercing the hand as well as supporting the “house.” Inside the house several fists, cast from his and hers, are loosely placed, so that when the piece is rocked, they roll around and hit each other. The fighting fists are a clear metaphor for the emotions and violent disagreements that rocked, and finally severed, their relationship. Walburg believes that they would have ultimately broken up anyway, but the Humboldt house was the catalytic factor. Its contrary orientation references the distress and destruction that the breakup caused.

Screen shot 2014-06-22 at 4.19.57 PMFollowing this piece, he began using the hand as a more standard part of his sculptural vocabulary. A mobile with hanging components in the form of his and Tamara’s hands and fists continued the narrative of the previous work; meant to be hung outside, the pieces would strike each other as the wind blew. As the ache from the breakup receded, he created the large bronze Growth (1994). It is in the shape of a horizontal hand holding a telescoping stainless steel tube that begins small and then expands in diameter with each of the subsequent thirteen sections, representing the thirteen years that he and Tamara spent together.

Screen shot 2014-06-22 at 4.06.29 PMWorking in a less monumental scale now, however, is also a product of the support system—or lack thereof—for such major works. Although disappointed, of course, Walburg remains characteristically philosophical about the ultimate fates of his output. He readily admits that teaching has given him the freedom to create what he wants, as he wants, without the necessity of being tied either to market forces or aesthetic fads. He has worked for four decades following his own path, for the most part (“98% of the time,” he says) neither working with galleries nor for specific commissions.

In 2004 he shifted radically into a new series of ceramic forms that recall the somewhat inscrutable biomorphism of Ken Price’s works from the mid-1960s. These, too, he calls “pots,” although in some instances the container opening is just barely visible, and they are clearly not intended for use. “Although I don’t see them as utilitarian objects,” he has said, still “they fit that category. They’re playing with that whole issue, of whether they’re art or not.” “Working on these new clay pieces allows me to remain a maker, work with a material that’s really plastic, and do it with the freedom that I can’t do in metal, both in form and [due to the constrictions of] scale.