Against the Grain: the Sculpture of Michael Rea

Craft & Design

By Garth Johnson
As somebody who teaches art to college students, one of my (many) mantras is you have to make art about things that actually interest you. As much as this may sound like a no-brainer, it actually comes as a shock to many students who think they have to fit into a mold or conform to a specific career path to “make it” as an artist. Michael Rea (pronounced “Ray”) is living proof that an artist can prosper by establishing a direct link to their fantasy world. The 36-year old Chicago artist is constantly churning out epic carved wooden sculptures like a weaponized time-travelling suit of robotic armor made for Stephen Hawking that is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Rea’s day job involves running the wood shop at Northwestern University’s art program. I can only imagine how cool it must be to learn to operate power tools from a renegade wood sculptor who specializes in creating wooden space vehicles and giant weapons instead of a cranky old cabinetmaker who is missing fingers. Piece by piece, Rea is gradually making the fantasy world of a twelve-year-old boy into a reality.

As you might guess, process is central to Rea’s worldview, as well as his work. During a meandering (in a good way) chat with him, I would often ask simple questions – like how his suburban Chicago upbringing affected who he is as an adult, and he gave me answers that focused on objects and the way they fit into systems. For example, he used the tags that were used to reserve VHS tapes at his local video rental store as a way to connect me, the listener, with the time and place he grew up in. When talking about the local music store that he grew up with, he fixated on describing the impractical “longboxes” that cassettes used to come in. This is the effect that Rea’s work has, too. It uses little imperfect, impractical details to transport the viewer to another place.
In addition to speaking eloquently about contemporary art, Rea also talked about his love of pop culture. He spoke about his teenage love for the HBO television show “Dream On,” which centered on a recently divorced book editor who navigated the world around him by constantly drawing comparisons between his life and clips from old TV shows and movies that rattle around in his head. Viewing Rea’s work is a little bit like being the main character from “Dream On”–your experience of them is mediated by your relationship to films like Star Wars. His pieces are fantasy objects that expose their references, as well as their seams.
Imperfection is also paramount in Rea’s world. With a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin, he certainly possesses the hand skills to turn out drool-worthy heirloom-quality work in exotic woods and finishes. Instead, he works with common scraps and 2x4s that are ingeniously joined together, carved and left unfinished.
His career started practically enough. Rea studied art education and taught for five years as an elementary school art teacher. At the same time, he was hanging around friends who were in rock bands, so he started carving and designing nonfunctional guitars, amps and other instruments. He wasn’t really well-versed in professional development as an artist–he didn’t know how to approach a gallery to set up an exhibition… but he did know how to book a rock show.
“I found a venue that didn’t ask any questions. I just called up and asked if I could book a show. I had friends who were in bands, and asked if they would open. I asked another band if they would close, and then I made a wooden band.” His wooden band may not have racked up any number ones, but they did propel him into grad school at the University of Wisconsin, under the tutelage of furniture designer Tom Loeser. Loeser embraced the anarchic elements in Rea’s art, encouraging him to pursue sculpture that mixed function, fantasy and raw imperfection in equal measures.
Rea graduated from Wisconsin in 2007. In addition to the aforementioned mechanized Stephen Hawking time travel suit, he created another landmark that year that must have satisfied his inner teenager (as well as his inner art historian)–a replica of Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia that consisted of an elaborately carved settee, an oversized sci-fi crossbow, and a female model posing in a hand-latch hooked wookiee costume. Just like when Rea used the image of longboxes in a music store, this piece was shorthand for some sort of Proustian science fiction reverie that transported even the uninitiated into his fantasy mental landscape.
Michael Rea continues to run roughshod over the preteen fantasy landscape that he has been defining over the years. His “Ark of the Covenant” is a slapdash (yet awe-inspiring) wooden replica of the namesake prop from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” complete with fluorescent lighting and dry ice fog.
A more recent piece is “Tsavo Manhunters”, a room-sized mechanized robo-vehicle that works out to being more than the sum of its pop-culture parts. First, take a Star Wars-esque motorized vehicle, then add in two gigantic carved lion heads that represent a pair of lions that stalked and ate crew members attempting to build a railway bridge over the Tsavo river in Kenya in 1898. The Tsavo Lions were chronicled in a 1907 book by John Henry Patterson, a Lieutenant Colonel in the British army who shot them and summarily turned them into rugs. Through the magic of taxidermy, those rugs have now been reconstituted in Chicago’s Field Museum, where they presumably met the attention of Rea. Add to this a requisite pop culture lens coming in the form of the 1996 Val Kilmer vehicle “The Ghost and the Darkness,” and you’ve got a signature work by Rea.
Rea’s artworks are pop culture confections that are designed to delight and enthrall audiences. Their sheer imaginative abandon is counteracted by the labor involved in bringing the sculptures to life. Rea conceptualizes his pieces based on the whims of his inner twelve-year-old, but then spends countless hours bringing them to life. The pieces are also saved from being glanced at and dismissed as mere movie props because they are designed to look handmade… sort of like Robocop as envisioned by the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.”
To satisfy himself in the studio, Rea works improvisationally. Rather than draft blueprints, Rea will simply start by imagining the whole sculpture, then simply designing the first piece, like a foot. Bit by bit, he works up, developing joints, working on scale, function and balance. He spoke of “painting himself into a corner” where he had to improvise and work out a way to finish his pieces. Working as slowly as he does gives Rea the ability to think about the relationship of every part to every other part, deciding how the final piece should function.
When I asked him if he had a “love-hate” relationship with craftsmanship, Rea replied that he “didn’t know about his relationship with craft being love-hate, but that they certainly had an arrangement. Not a traditional marriage, by any means, but an open relationship”. The fact that he is working within the realm of sculpture, not furniture, frees him up and gives him the ability to work expressively, rather than with function in mind. Like much of the work related to the D.I.Y. movement, Rea’s finished product reminds the viewer that it is decidedly handmade.
Sometimes, Rea’s most stunning flourishes of craftsmanship are the result of covering up a mistake. “Sometimes I make a mistake, then have to add another layer of craftsmanship, of woodworking, just to cover up the mistake. If one side of a piece is two inches, and the other side four inches and they’ve got to meet, then I’ve got to create a two inch buffer to connect them. A lot of mistakes happen, which maybe doesn’t happen in craft… but maybe they should.”
For all of the masculine fantasies that emerge in his work, surprisingly Rea isn’t much of a gearhead. When I asked him about the tools that he used in his studio, he told me that he sticks to a bare-bones toolkit of table saw, radial saw, band saw and other woodshop staples. What his studio doesn’t lack is size. He works in his own large studio in a Chicago warehouse that he shares with other artists.
Masculinity is prominent in Rea’s work in the form of process – he is working in wood, after all, but also in the form of fantasy. Rather than being a parody of masculinity, it always feels like the masculinity on display is through the eyes of an adolescent, who has yet to step into the realm of adulthood. While working on major pieces like the Stephen Hawking suit, he gives imagination an outlet to create other more “practical” projects on the side, like a pair of carved jet skis that come with their own trailer.
One important reason that Rea’s work exists at all is the fact that he doesn’t talk himself out of doing things. He’s willing to spend six months of hard labor in the studio on a piece that was thought up as a bad pun or goofy thought in the middle of the night. Seeing his work in public is a way for audiences to connect their stray thoughts to Rea’s work, which serve as monuments to stray thoughts.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Rea if he ever thought about what his twelve-year-old self would say if he could be teleported to the present to experience his current sculpture. Without missing a beat, he replied:
“The twelve-year-old and I are still one and the same. There’s no need to call him over, because he’s right here. He’s cool with it.”
About the Author:
Garth Johnson is a studio artist, writer, and educator who lives in Eureka, California. He is a craft activist who explores craft’s influence and relevance in the 21st century. His weblog, Extreme Craft, is a “Compendium of Art Masquerading as Craft, Craft Masquerading as Art, and Craft Extending its Middle Finger.”

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