Growing up in Southern California, Russell Wrankle spent his formative years wandering throughout the dusty Californian landscape. He could frequently be found exploring and observing the wilderness; a hunter at heart, he was always ready to catch his next jackrabbit.
Wrankle grew up in an untamed wildness. Both inside and outside his home he lived with the dominating force of hunter versus prey for the majority of his youth. As a twelve-year-old boy, he sought and found comfort in the stillness and silence of the wilderness. Falling in love with the serenity he found solace in hunting, catching, and skinning local jackrabbits with the intention of selling the skins, even though most of the time he simply ended up tucking the skins away at home, a process that was to reap rewards later on.
These hunting experiences gave Wrankle an edge, with a insider knowledge and an in-depth understanding of just how real skin moves and responds to touching, ripping, pulling, and draping. With all the tangible tools he recalls as learning with his hands, he is now able to apply them to his barbarous and beastly charged contemporary sculptural works.
Growing up in such a setting that nurtured a hands-on approach to learning, he spent most of his time drifting and discovering California’s natural environment. At the age of 24 he decided to attend Southern Illinois Community College, intending to follow a full-time academic career. During his studies he was obliged to fulfill an elective requirement and chose to take a ceramics class. Once his hands touched clay, his childhood memories began to materialize, as he pushed, pulled, and stretched the clay, the sensuality of the material began to evoke deeper narratives in his life. He soon found himself changing majors and beginning his career as a fine artist.
Now Wrankle is a full-time professor at Southern Utah University where he teaches both ceramics and sculpture. Known for his surrealistic, animal-fueled sculptures, Wrankle honed his skills studying under the vigilance of Mark Burns. Burns, equally recognized for his mastery of the material and hyper-realistic sculptures, passed his knowledge and mastery of the art of trompe l’oeil to Wrankle. This was an experience that has remained a significant impact on his current approach to working. As a student, he had continued to develop his own artistic voice and found comfort in the familiar form of the jackrabbit, but most significantly its skin.
The skin itself became a canvas to offer up an allegory of fables, recording moments rich with his childhood experiences. Combining these adolescent recollections with an approach to contemporary art and design led to objects that speak of a transient moment, recaptured, reconfigured, and mindful of the past molded into the present.
Shaping the Artist of Today
As an educator, Wrankle constantly reminds his students not to edit themselves as they work, a challenge every student must confront. In a spark of inspiration he instructed students to created a series of sculptural works, without including or developing any theoretical concepts as they worked. This was to be an exercise in freedom, to give students permission to follow their subconscious and generate works that are purely process and material based—without preconceptions, self-censorship, guilt, or regret. From this exercise he found students were able to generate prolific bodies of work. As the project came to an end, students were shocked to find direct correlations to each of their own personal theoretical approaches to working, and marveled as the context of the new work began to unravel before them.
“It’s the students that keep me motivated, it is the energy in the studio that keeps me searching, questioning, constantly investigating,” he explains. “What is next? What are we working toward? Along with critical thinking and placing their work into a contemporary art context, I feel it is important to allow my students to fail, then try again and again. It is the cornerstone to a good artistic practice. As an artist you can’t be safe! You have to take risks. If you don’t take any risks, then you are not being honest to yourself. You have to allow yourself to grow as an artist.”
This exacting methodology that he assigned to his students also helped open a door for him in the studio, giving himself the freedom to follow his subconscious, allowing it to direct the way, breaking through his comfort zone and bypassing his own uncertain self, and ultimately generated the Homological Theory Series.
Homological Theory Series
“In some of my previous work the animal skin was a stand in for male and female genitalia.” We find skin tightly wrapped around a highly glossed red stiletto heel in Red Fetish; a symbol synonymous with sex and sexuality, the imagery asking us to read past the everyday figuration and deeper into the hidden symbolism embedded within it. The work tempts us to see the male organ stretching itself around the represented symbolic object, squeezing, clinging to, and suffocating the form itself.
Wrankle’s previous work touched upon historical references, specifically on rabbits and the hare’s role in art. “Rabbits have paradoxically been used as both symbols of sexuality and virginal purity. They have been a sex symbol since antiquity. In ancient Rome, rabbits were frequently depicted as the animal of Venus. Conversely, the rabbit was used by artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a symbol of sexual purity and was often depicted alongside the Madonna and Child.”
In his current work, Wrankle is concerned with the representation of sex, sexuality, and identity. He explains,“the motivation for this new series of work comes from conversations about sex and sexuality with friends and hearing the stories of the danger they face everyday because they are part of LGBTQ community. This is something that made me feel furious, but at the same time made me realize you need to live life fully and take risks…”
During the creation of the Homological Theory Series, his work began to open new internal dialogs for Wrankle, tapping into subconscious philosophies on the constructs around human relationships. Particularly, with direct connections to his friends who are part of the LGBTQ community and what it means to be an artist living in southern Utah he questions himself, “What responsibility and accountability do I have as an artist living in a conservative state?”
Within the variations of Wrankle’s pieces we can see his process transforming, in his earlier work Red Fetish, we find the sexual narrative hiding behind the symbolism of the hare’s skin. Now, in the Homological Theory, we find the works stepping away from the safety and security of symbolism. With the portrayal of the male genitalia, Wrankle is allowing these objects to speak directly to the importance of the issues he is fighting for, his passion for change and his evolution as an artist.
In this recent body of work there is a clear sense that he wants to create works imbued with meaningful engagement and purpose. Wrankle is focusing on creating works to stimulate dialog on vital contemporary issues, hoping to restore and reinforce our humanity, and most essentially, to argue that no one needs to endure such constant discrimination and prejudice.
Such concerns and conversations around the Homological Theory series have altered Wrankle’s perceptions of art, and humankind and, in doing so, has created a new powerful and compelling voice in activism.
As the work develops, new questions will arise, challenging belief systems of gender, sexuality, and identity. As an artist, educator, and activist, Wrankle is determined to continue to address these issues while looking toward the future to create change. Reflecting on the complexities of what individuals experience as part of the LGBTQ community brings him to ask: “How can we rejuvenate compassion in humanity?”
the author Edith Garcia is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the California College of the Arts, where she was awarded the Viola Frey Distinguished-Visiting Professorship. Garcia is strongly engaged in the critical research of contemporary art and craft issues with curatorial projects, publishing, and creating works that reflect this passion. Garcia received her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, MFA from the California College of the Arts, and MPhil at the Royal College of Art in London. To learn more, please visit www.edithgarciastudio.com.