Swan Vision presents:
The Uncanny Valley
Dean Lucker’s Log Men
August 12-September 15, 2018
The mysterious Log Men first arrived, in 2011, when sculptor Dean Lucker made a conscious choice to empathize with a simple block of basswood. On the heels of this communion, Lucker employed his grandfather’s chisels, carved away what wasn’t the sculpture and—low and behold—a man made from logs appeared. This beckoned the arrival of others and, as more and more figures were born, several things became evident: The Log Men humbly resisted any kind of pedigree. They evoked tangible tenderness and elicited sympathy from nearly every human who met them. And, almost always, they held completely still.
This may not seem a remarkable story except that Dean Lucker has created fanciful kinetic sculptures—stirred into motion by electricity or the crank of the viewers hand—for nearly three decades. Simply put, Dean Lucker is best known and loved for colorful, moving, magical, mechanical, interactive, story-telling sculptures. So, what gives? Lucker admits that he doesn’t know where the Log Men came from. “It just seemed like they needed to exist.”
The Log Men first appeared in a partial state of decay—with truncated limbs and hollow eye sockets giving them a funereal sensibility. It might be said that they seemed perplexed. Mild, but perplexed. Lucker pondered Pinocchio, robotics and the possibilities of trans-species identity. And he concluded that these beings seemed to reside in (or manifest from) the uncanny valley between human and non-human entities. He noticed that the Log Men leveled out the hierarchy of “high” and “low”. The man is the cut-down tree. The cut-down tree is the man. Both equally common and equally unique. And, in this case, one in the same.
To the extent that every art object is a self-portrait, we can speculate that this Log Man is, on some level, Dean Lucker. To be sure, many of Lucker’s automated works feature a Lucker-like man engaging with other species such as magical flowers or crying pears. His earlier signature Tin Man sculptures signified the challenge of finding heart in a culture driven by other things—something that has aligned with Lucker’s own experience in life. Perhaps the Log Men reflected Lucker’s own decline or rose out of his deep-seated grief for the passing of his beloved mother, Donna. Indeed, many of the early Log Men were companions to the moon, illustrating Lucker’s tender and devoted homage to Donna, her love for the celestial and her complete trust in the universe. While all these things enrich our understanding of Lucker and his work, none of them completely settles the “Why?” or the “Who?” of Log Man. Why has he come? And why has he come now?
If we look for clues in the physical forms of the Log Men (as sculptures) we can see they are masterfully carved. Lucker’s deep knowledge of the Black Forest Style is present; aligning the Log Men with his interactive mechanical works. But the starkness and singularity of these incarnations completely shed Lucker’s signature engagements: the trappings of mechanical clocks, the complex traditions of 18th and 19th century automata and the weighty mantle of entertainment. While Lucker has delighted audiences with his work for decades, it does not seem that the Log Men are here to “put on a show”. So, what is their purpose?
Circling back to the beginning: Lucker set his intention to empathize with a block of wood. The word “empathize” describes the quality or the intention of the relationship between the artist and his media. We can dismiss a block of wood as an inanimate object, and most often do. But Lucker’s media is comprised of the bones of a Linden Tree. These bones are encoded with DNA, a material record of a previous life with ancestors who created, through millennia, rain and oxygen and shelter for countless other species. The block of wood exists today (however briefly) as the remains of being who, in its previous incarnation, was an honored member of the most generous kingdom of beings on Earth; beings who sacrificed their bones for so long that the humans forgot to be grateful and they cut down more trees than the world can bear. All of this is in the block of wood.
Might it be that empathy is the key into “the uncanny valley”? Is it possible that Dean Lucker’s empathy activated the essence of the bones of a tree? Might the Log Man be the personification of the space or relationship between humans and plants—between Dean Lucker and a Linden Tree?
If these questions seem farfetched, remember that humans throughout history have shared myriad accounts of such personifications. Images and stories of green men, nature spirits and sprites fill the mythologies and archetypes of countless cultures. Herbalist and author Stephen Buhner notes that virtually all indigenous cultures have creation myths stating that humans are the children of plants. And further, that the plant wisdom has historically been gathered through dreams, visions and by communicating directly with plants. The great American Chemist, George Washington Carver, credited his many inventions to the plants themselves and stated directly that if you loved a plant enough it will share many secrets.
But what about the bones of a plant? Certainly, both science and religion address the phenomenon of consciousness residing in all things. Quantum physics teaches that the past, the present and the future exist simultaneously and that the mere act of putting attention on a thing changes its behavior on a quantum level. Consider the work of the great Bengali Physicist Jagadis Chandra Bose who demonstrated through countless experiments that both animate and inanimate forms are aware and responsive. Or the dis-quieting truth that the material world is fleeting whereas the forces of spirit and love are eternal. Still, it is difficult to understand or measure invisible things.
We can be certain that Dean Lucker is the shepherd for the Log Man—just as each of us shepherd certain things for the time that we are here. And, as his flock has grown the Log Men seem stronger. Some have sprouted leaves. Others have grown human-like eyes—ushering in a certain sense of comfort (even though many who work with plants say that, even without eyes, they “see” better than homo sapiens). And the likes of those Log Men who Lucker refers to as “the sweet birch people” are positively luminous—emanating spiritual energy and a kind sympathy for the viewer. Such a generous reminder that nature doesn’t hold grudges but always strives for balance. Indeed, the beautiful planet Earth happily spins whether she is covered with dinosaurs, a thick blanket of ice or millions of conflicted human beings.
Neither is there drama or judgement in the Log Men’s countenance. His tenderness dis-arms our defenses; inviting us to a meditate on the bones of trees and rethink the relationship between human and non-human entities. In his perfect stillness the Log Man stirs us into movement. It is easy to be glad for the Log Men. As for the uncanny valley, it is for us to revive.
——Cynde Randall, July 2018, Maiden Rock, Wisconsin
This essay accompanies Swan Vision Gallery’s third exhibition of contemporary art: “The Uncanny Valley”, on view Friday through Sunday, noon-5:00 from August 12-September 15, 2018. Swan Vision presents focused exhibitions of contemporary art, curated by Cynde Randall, to reveal the living artists’ take on transformative practice, interbeing and alignment with the planet Earth. The gallery is made possible by a collaboration with Santosha Center in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin. For more information visit www.swanvision.net or follow Swan Vision on Facebook. Contact Cynde Randall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-250-9222
About the artist—Dean Lucker earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, in 1985. At MCAD Lucker studied printmaking and distilled an egalitarian philosophy about art practice and production. More importantly, he met his future wife and life-long collaborator, artist Ann Wood. Soon after their graduation, Lucker and Wood setup a studio for their creative partnership, established an art-based business called Woodlucker LLC, and set the trajectories of their own individual artistic careers. Throughout their collaboration Lucker / Wood have exhibited extensively, winning top awards at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, the Smithsonian Craft Show, and the American Craft Council Shows. Their work has been featured on Minnesota Public Television’s Crafts in Minnesota and Minnesota Original programs; and in Minnesota Monthly and American Craft magazines.
As an independent artist, Lucker has earned a significant reputation for his larger-scaled, one-of-a-kind mechanical sculptures. These works have resulted from Lucker’s extensive passion for and study of traditional Victorian Automata; the mechanical clocks and woodcarving in the Black Forest Style; as well as contemporary automata featured in venues such as the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, in the UK.
Lucker has spent nearly three decades creating a personal language for mechanical storytelling; delighting audiences regionally, nationally and internationally. Regionally, his work is perhaps best known through permanent public installations at St. Paul’s Como Park Conservatory and Minneapolis’ Children’s Hospital and OPENBOOK. Lucker has exhibited his work at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Frederick G. Weisman Museum, The Minnesota Museum of American Art and the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts; received grants or fellowships from the Bush Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board and FORECAST; and is represented in numerous private and public collections, including those held by the NIKE Corporation, the Chazen Museum of Art, the Arkansas Art Center and the Japanese Automata Museum