In “Deliver Me,” a rare Frank Strunk III exhibition, opening this month at Leslie Curran Gallery, the intrepid sculptor explores what we think lifts us from the pain and tedium of our lives.
Text by Julie Garisto
Photos by Daniel Veintimilla
Titanium casing, fantasy film armor, sprawling skyscrapers: Metal has the potential to take on the form of so many things, but before we can ponder the possibilities, we move on, consumed by responsibilities and social media-inflicted hyper-vigilance. We work two jobs to afford the devices that will allow us to show off our best everything on Facebook five times the speed of our last device. Thoughts and prayers, meditation, searches for more cat videos, more inspirational TedTalks. When nothing cures the pain, we strive to transcend by being bigger, better, faster, stronger. Or, in our lesser moments, we cheat, overeat, drink and chase other carrots on moving sticks.
St. Petersburg-based artist Frank Strunk III drills through life’s excesses and challenges us to ask ourselves fundamental questions about our driving beliefs and motivations. He gets our quest for perpetually sought-after holy and unholy grails and has created totems of human desperation for his first exhibition in more than a decade, “Deliver Me: New Sculptures by Frank Strunk III.”
Strunk, who turns 54 next month, solders new interpretations of escape and emotional rescue to our imagination with cleverness and poetic storytelling in his new show. The St. Petersburg-based artist has broken from his touring/art fest routine to set up in Leslie Curran Gallery and curate a (mostly) new collection of kinetic, wood and metal-based sculptures.
Opening tonight, the exhibition should accomplish what great art should always does; it stops us in our tracks, challenges our perceptions, and enchants us. Though personally driven, the works in “Deliver Me” stop short of being blatantly biographical or heavy-handed in their symbolism. They simply question the ways we yearn to be lifted from the pain and tedium of life.
“Putting this together was way tougher than I thought it was going to be,” Strunk admitted. “There are 20 pieces in this show and it’s hard to remain that vulnerable for that long. It just wears you out. I haven’t done a solo exhibition like this — not in this city or really anywhere for like 15 years — because it’s so damn hard. It’s hard to stay on the theme and then execute, you know, try to keep myself honest in terms of how well am I executing these pieces. You gotta be your own critic and that’s tough to do, especially when you have a reputation (laughs.) When you have a reputation, you know, people are going to be very forgiving of your amateurish ways. You put it out there, and people are like, I love your loose style here. That’s not loose. That’s fucking lazy. But there’s not a lazy piece in this show. Every piece is a struggle.”
Born in Rockville, Maryland, with a lineage that goes back deep into Appalachia, Strunk has become a local icon, revered for ingenious works that incorporate aesthetics of bygone eras, dystopian edginess and toylike machinations.
As a child, Strunk was shy, diminutive and intellectually curious. While helping his dad in his print shop, he realized he despised the ennui of traditional day jobs. When his taller, headstrong older siblings teased him, his grandmother admonished them and said, “Still Waters Run Deep,” the title of one of the more personal, contemplative pieces in the show.
A self-proclaimed late bloomer (though that’s debatable), Strunk started creating art in his 20s and welding in his 40s. In his younger years, he held down carpentry jobs and all facets of construction — “except roofing,” he clarifies. While working construction, he started seeing the potential uses of materials around him. In the late ’90s/early 2000s — when he began to earn a living as a professional artist.
An evolution achieved through curiosity, tenacity and hard work helped launch Strunk’s career. The materials he worked with every day sparked his imagination. He saw unique possibilities and loved building and working with his hands. A Gen-Xer with punk rock look, he has a slew of tattoos, including the words “Believe” and “Persist” on the inside of each wrist.
Showing in art festivals across the U.S. has proven lucrative for the artist but a hassle too — especially given the heavy pieces he has to lug out each day. Many of the encounters with observers are pleasant, he says, but there will always be that one obnoxious person who threatens to wreck the whole experience. “One guy will say, ‘Explain to me why you’re charging $5,000 for this piece. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, dude, listen, I’m not here to explain. It’s just not for you, and you’re spilling a beer on my carpet.”
Those familiar with Strunk’s work will recognize the recurring heart imagery in the “Wild Heart.” It’s a motif popularized in the past decade by his Tin Man-like robot in Clymer Park, “Big Dumb Heart.”
Those who know Strunk personally know, for all his gruff and no-nonsense honesty, he has big love and respect for the people who inspire him.
For instance, he praises the success of his first roommate, Bask, and another prominent Pinellas artist, David Williams, for inspiring him and challenging him to defy predictability. Strunk’s biggest source of support and inspiration, hands down, is his partner, fellow Soundgarden lover, Bethany Peabody. “She gets me,” he says. Even just talking about her always-changing hair color, which he says now is a “Merlot,” he gets all squishy. “She’s so cool,” he says with a lovestruck devotion.
Another show of big love, “Deliver Me” lays out a culmination of Strunk’s life’s lessons. “His striking and recognizable work combines the brute qualities of welded metal sculpture with the profound message of an introspective philosophical pursuit,” Curator Robin Perry Dana writes in her press release for “Deliver Me.”
“We tried to get him for four years,” owner Curran adds. Strunk, who has, obviously, been squeamish about the social politics and formalities of a gallery show, says Curran and Smith have been a dream team to work with. “Robin saw what a toll the show was taking on me and would call every day and see how I was doing,” Strunk shared. “Who does that?”
Displaying works in groupings described as “Reliquaries” and “Heal Thyself,” Strunk displays works sculpted and welded with metal and found objects. In Reliquaries, we see shadowbox-like shrines — “Love Potion No. 9,” “Liquid Courage,” for instance — dedicated to ideas and consumables we think will get us through life. In, “Heal Thyself,” Strunk challenges his medium with sheer genius. He cleverly shapes, hammers steel and staples to show wounds in all stages of healing; wounds that rupture, wounds that have almost disappeared but leave a souvenir scar to remember them by; wounds once healed but rupture again. Disturbingly realistic and unique unto themselves, they don’t represent anything specific, but, rather, call the viewer to think about the events and memories in our own lives that have scarred us or changed us forever.
In “Deliver Me,” we get Strunk at his mid-career best. He applies his welding torch, patina and blood-stain-colored paint in ways that will forever challenge our perceptions of so-called cold steel.
As the County’s Local Arts Agency, Creative Pinellas and the programs we deliver are funded by the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, Visit St Petersburg / Clearwater, the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts and by sales of the State of the Arts specialty license plate in Pinellas County.