He regularly visits scrapheaps the way some people go to church. Three or four times a month, he says, he walks alone into Tucson's hushed junkyards and beholds the "forlorn piles of bent, twisted and rusted metal." And then he has a vision of how a rusted cog or nail or anvil will come back to life in a piece of art.
Like a pastor pulling a black sheep back into the fold, "I redeem it."
Derks' sanctified metal sculptures are in gardens all over town, their bronzey car parts rising up in strange geometries among the flowers and cacti. Already weathered by use and the elements, a particularly large collection points its metal to the heavens in the sculpture garden at the newish Tangerine Gallery in midtown.
But for the current gallery show, Sculptural Odyssey, some of the pieces have moved inside. The sculptures--made of circles and cubes and spirals and screws--stand around on the gallery floor like totems to abstraction. There's nothing highfalutin about them, though: Their working-class roots in the machine shop and barn give them street cred.
"Rolling Gold" is a big circular rim with crenellated edges, resplendent in rusted steel. Inside the rim, a shiny gold-metal ball sits, waiting to be tilted, perhaps. The whole thing sits on top of a coppery spool.
"Seven Available Windows" is a slab of dark, rusty steel punctured, sure enough, with seven little window-like openings. It sits atop a milky I-beam that serves as a pedestal.
Derks says in his artist's statement that he never bends or cuts the metal. He takes it as is, whole or mutilated, and re-assembles it into something new. As a result, it's hard to know what the component parts were once used for--or what they're called. Made into art, they get our attention in a way they never would have during their long and useful working life. They're mute memory pieces that honor the labor of the workers who crafted them and hauled them and soldered them into place.
And their weathered metal has a strange beauty, with the rusts edging into coppers and bronzes and gold. Perhaps inspired by these colors, Derks some time ago branched into making wall paintings on metal. His pigments still don't stray too far from the junkyard. Instead of classical oils, he normally uses enamel and spray paint, though the exact formula remains something of a trade secret, according to gallery owner Susan Warren.
Two whole walls glisten with dozens of Derks' brilliantly colored paintings on aluminum. He cuts the shiny metal into squares, either 12-by-12 or 24-by-24, and leaves a glittery border around the edges. Inside this silvery frame, the colors pool deliciously atop the slick surface. Glowing in car-bright tones, the paintings' oranges and turquoises, leaf greens and canary yellows, are the opposite of the earthy rusts of the sculptures. And the paintings often obliquely conjure up an unsullied landscape instead of discards and debris.
One of the untitled squares is divided horizontally into two color fields, a skylike blue on top, earthlike green and rose on bottom, and a narrow band of bright dawn pink curving in between. Still, there's a hint of the industrial lab. Derks has engineered some kind of chemical reaction on the plate, and the painting permanently preserves the spirals and circles of the bubbling chemicals.
Nor does he forget the workplace shapes. One of the aluminum paintings has an all-over pattern of blue-green circles. They look like they've been spray-painted through a screen. Even so, the artist has painted what amounts to a rolling landscape in the spaces in between the circles, with blue above flowing into yellow and then green.
Derks is also painting on canvas and wood now, and his painterly effects vary depending on the underlying surface. Aluminum absorbs the least pigment, making these the glossiest; wood absorbs a little more, and canvas a lot, so these glow a little less. But he adds passages of shine and texture even to the canvas works. And he uses much of the same industrial imagery.
"Your Move, Red," a big enamel on canvas about 5 feet high by 4 feet wide, is divided by a bright yellow curve into two uneven vertical rectangles. At left is a painterly field of blue and lime green; at right is a grid of red-pink squares marching row upon row down the canvas. The squares are thick and sticky-looking, jutting out into space. A few shiny 3-D circles spin across the grid.
"Around the Edge" is an enamel on wood, 5 feet square. It's a painterly work, all coppery and blue, with a Western-looking horizon of pale orange cutting across the center. A huge circle floats across this slash of peach. It might be a renegade sun, but it could also be just another workshed shape.
As if to drive home the point that these paintings are still inspired by his junk-shop finds, they're positioned near their corollary sculptures. "Around the Edge" hangs just above "Rolling Gold," the circular metal sculpture on the floor. The red painted squares of "Your Move, Red" are just above "Seven Available Windows," the metal sculpture pockmarked by seven little squares. The juxtapositions cleverly link the art of the everyday with the art of the studio.
The exhibition also features the work of two other artists. Longtime sculptor Ed Davenport, a musician who performed at last weekend's Tucson Folk Festival, carves smooth marble abstractions out of rock. His lovely pieces, in subtle marble tints of alabaster and gray, are rhythmic works of curves and spaces. "Genetic Copy" is a fine example; its two swoops of white marble hint ever so subtly at the sensuous sweeps of the human body.
Davenport's working method is the opposite of Derks'. Where Derks builds up and assembles, Davenport smoothes away and deletes. Bryan Crow, a young newcomer, is closer to Derks' aesthetic. He scavenges steel and junk, too, but he likes to weld his long twists of metal into spindly human figures.
"Figure With Hat" is made of steel and found objects: Inside the figure's open chest, all kinds of colorful metal trinkets have been stored. Crow sometimes slathers colored concrete onto his pieces. In his "Red Figure," tinted cement clings to the steel armature like clay. A funny googly eye, from a cast-off doll, perhaps, is embedded in the chest, a piece of holy junk enshrined close to the human heart.