Sculpture inspired by fossils, single-celled creatures, origin myths and more.
THE SCULPTURAL CREATIONS of Mike Kammerer graced the Fortune Gallery for ten days in March 2020. Unfortunately, the exhibition was cut short by the pandemic closures. Those lucky enough to catch the show were impressed by the artist’s combination of technical excellence and imaginative scope.
Kammerer’s three-dimensional wooden forms create intriguing visual puzzles. Some constructions expand outwards with elegant trailing arms and life-like tentacles. Others display a circular array of sharp starlike rays.
Mike Kammerer, Rock Bay Square studio, May 2020 (Photo by Kate Cino)
An artwork called Chambers VI is a series of interlocking three-dimensional cells, amorphous in appearance. Contrasts of shape and texture add visual drama. Movement is implied by irregular shapes in the wood, pulling apart and reforming. Gently curving exteriors contrast with spiky interior barbs. Simple spiral forms and elliptical curving structures seem stretched into existence like taffy or molten glass.
But this is solid wood! One wonders: What are they? How are they made? What inspired such lavish fabrications?
Visiting Kammerer in his Rock Bay Square studio answers some of these questions. Here we find power tools and work benches, preliminary sketches tacked up beside finished works. “All my ideas begin with a sketch book,” says Kammerer, “and usually expand from simple to compound.”
This is in line with the artist’s conceptual theories about how invisible cells or particles build into colonies. As he designs, he notes how the facets of the structures react and inter-relate. “The intentional always combines with chance for unexpected results,” he says.
One perspective that informs his artwork is the interconnection of all life forms. All living organisms have DNA and RNA molecules that store genetic information and show our shared ancestry. Cells hold this mystery, and fossils show us the lineage of our evolution. But Kammerer sees a profound mystery in the way single-celled creatures have evolved into complex forms. “My art is fuelled by this sense of reverence and awe,” he says.
The art of Mike Kammerer (click image to see more or to pause)
Born in 1970, Kammerer grew up in the Guelph/Waterloo area of Southern Ontario. His creative family included two older brothers who attended the University of Waterloo. Art, music and philosophical ideas abounded in the home, which piqued the younger sibling’s interest in dadaism and surrealism. He studied visual arts briefly at UVic, then enrolled in a three-year geology and earth sciences program at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Ontario.
After graduation, he worked for resource-based companies in the Yukon, mapping in remote areas and living in the bush. Field crews were flown in by helicopter and camped for weeks at a time. His job was to survey and map, hammer in stakes, collect rock samples and daily record his findings. “I spent a lot of evenings analyzing the crystalline structure of rocks,” he says. He also studied land forms and surfaces to ascertain what lay beneath the surface. From these experiences grew a sensory acuity towards textures, shapes and sculptural components.
These days, Kammerer is still drawn to the wild country. He divides his time between preparing for shows and commissions in his Victoria studio, and exploring back country. He often spends time off the grid on a communal property near Kamloops. “I love the open country there,” he says, “you can walk for miles in any direction.”
Kammerer started out as a painter, but found his true calling with woodworking. In 2000, he had a roommate who used power tools for creative endeavours. After trying them out, he immediately saw the potential of this new medium. He bought a set of used power tools, and began to have fun.
In 2005, the artist moved to Vancouver, and lived for four years at the Arts and Resource Centre (ARC). He spent summers in the Yukon to finance his art career.
At ARC, with 80 live/work studios in one building, Kammerer became familiar with variety of disciplines. “At ARC, my eyes were opened to the conceptual aspects of creativity,” he says. He began to study contemporary artists who fabricate organic forms using elements of engineering. These include Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon and Lee Bontecou. It was at the Museum of Modern Art in Chicago that he saw the work of Bontecou. He was fascinated by her enormous mobiles and interconnected structures using steel, clay and wood. “It was a jolt,” he says, “a way of liberating myself from preconceptions about artmaking.”
The titles of Kammerer’s artworks use Latin root names to describe their structural types. For example, works that radiate outward are titled Radiata, with roman numerals used for sequential pieces. The artist wants to free the viewer from preconceived word associations. By using neutral sounding titles, the enigmatic qualities of the artwork remain intact.
Kammerer believes his most successful works offer an enduring visual riddle. “My curiosity and motivation to build something often springs from an indefinite idea,” he says. “What I’m making remains a mystery.”
Fossils are among Kammerer’s many inspirations—for him, they are almost akin to religious artifacts, revealed by science. “Holding an ancient fragment of life that shares a common ancestry is awe-inspiring and humbling,” he says.
Such reverence is evident in Ichthyosaurus, a sculpture of a fishlike reptile dating to the Early Jurassic Period (about 250 million years ago). It had a long snout with sharp teeth; eyes as big as basketballs assisted dark-water hunting. Many intact skeletal fossils have been found in Germany, once an inland ocean. Kammerer’s nine-foot-long sculpture shows its sleek body, long beak and powerful tail. The flippers, beak, backbone nodules and tail are meticulously carved from birch plywood and walnut. The leathery skin of the creature is suggested by the colour and texture of the segmented body, constructed with wood and rice paper—and lit from within.
Art, earth sciences and the study of antiquity combine in this artist’s oeuvre. In works like Stromata IV, he demonstrates a many-layered intellect. The word stromata refers to the supporting structures of a cell—or alternatively, a philosophical dictionary or text from medieval times.
Learning about the universe through scientific inquiry connects Kammerer with life-generating forces. His artwork Chambers VI reminds him of the periodic table of elements. These chemical compounds were forged inside a super nova and are the building blocks of life.
Prehistoric artmaking, earth goddesses such as the Venus of Willendorf (25,000 BCE), origin myths and traditional cultures also intrigue Kammerer. As long as there are questions to ask and connections to be made, this artist will be hard at work on his next creation.
See more images of Mike Kammerer’s work at mikekammerer.com.
Kate Cino has run www.artopenings.ca for over 10 years, and has written about the arts in Victoria for even longer.