The following is taken from an essay accompanying Michele Oka Doner’s latest show at the Marlborough Gallery, Feasting on Bark (New York, April 16 – May 23, 2015), curated by Todd Levin. An internationally acclaimed artist whose prolific career spans four decades, Oka Doner is inspired by a lifelong study and appreciation of the natural world from which she derives her formal vocabulary.
Above image: Michele Oka Doner, Primal Self Portrait, 2008, cast bronze, 59 x 17 x 14 1/2 inches. Photograph courtesy of the gallery.
The exhibition includes life-sized bronze and wax figures, blown glass balls in varying sizes that are hand-etched with the forms of pollen seeds or distant planets, anthropomorphic terracotta figures, bronze bees—as Gregory Volk has written in the catalogue essay, “…sculptures that resemble plants, plants that resemble sculptures, rock shards that look human, bronze or wax forms that that look to be growing, fossils that look magical, and bodies that look vegetal…” This body of work is influenced by the artist’s knowledge of botany and entomology. Prominently featured among these works is Hominin Relic, a fossil-like, monumental figure made of tree bark and wax hanging from a scaffold; a work that appears at once animated and fossilized.
Oka Doner’s works on paper explore yet another facet of her art derived from nature. Corpus Origin, which is featured in the exhibition, is a seven-foot high shrouded figure composed with the roots of a banyan tree laid upon abacà paper. Beyond the apparent figure, there is the inextricable history of its medium: Oka Doner made the work from the tree roots of a particular banyan tree in Miami Beach that has captivated her since her childhood in the 1950s. A further series of nineteen works on paper illustrate the artist’s usage of paper inlaid with bark and other organic materials, which also allude to the central theme of the exhibition, Feasting on Bark. Each of these works is imbued with a personal sense of history and significance to the artist; these are works composed of objects that Oka Doner has collected over many years in her travels. Centrally displayed in the exhibition is a 16-foot table that holds a selection of the artist’s hand-made books bound with lead, wood or paper covers, containing the artist’s evocative drawings of flora and fauna on soft, tissue-like paper.
Committed to art at an early age, Oka Doner studied at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. There she was introduced to the design-oriented philosophies of the Bauhaus and the Arts and Crafts movement and began her exploration of the ceramic medium. In 1966 she received a Bachelor of Science and Design from the university followed by a Master of Fine Arts in 1968. Oka Doner soon began exhibiting in commercial galleries and gained recognition for her art from collectors and curators. In the 1980s, Oka Doner’s primary medium shifted from clay to metal, and she continues to work in the lost wax method creating wax forms that are later cast in bronze or silver. A masterful metalworker, Oka Doner has developed the ability to cast the most delicate materials such as palm fronds or moss. For this exhibition, Oka Doner cast a number of sizeable bronze figures, finished with rich earth-toned patinas.
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