Maika: When I began writing for Haute Macabre in 2016, one of the very first things I wanted to do was share an essay I’d already been writing and rewriting for years. It’s about the work of artist Scott Radke, one of my favorite contemporary artists, who has since become a friend. Each time I revisited this piece, I found myself lingering over it once more, honing and adding to it. So, of course, I revised it yet again before it was first published here. I’m not going to do that this time. I’m sharing it exactly as it was when I debuted as a member of the Haute Macabre staff.
There is one thing I’d like to add that you won’t find in the essay below: In addition to creating his marvelous sculptures, Scott Radke is also a wonderful nature photographer whose photos and videos are perfectly in line with the gentle, otherworldly tones of his art. He quite literally has birds eating out of the palm of his hand and the woods near his home are full of whitetail deer and wild turkeys. If you enjoy his art, chances are good you’ll likewise enjoy the natural world viewed through his eyes, especially if you’re a mycophile. I highly recommend checking out Scott’s other instagram account. While he posts nature photos to his primary IG account as well, this one is pretty strictly nature-focused and it’s one of my favorites.
Cleveland-based artist Scott Radke creates beautifully haunting and utterly unique characters in the form of sculptures and marionettes made of wire, wood, epoxy resin, burlap, and acrylic paint. Some might be quick to describe his characters as otherworldly, but I find them perfectly at home here in this world; it’s just that they inhabit spaces most humans don’t even notice, let alone occupy. They dwell in the shadows of shadows, within the reflections of pools and puddles, or cloaked by the patterns in tree bark or sunlight filtered through leaves.
When asked to explain some of his artwork during an interview with Arrested Motion, Radke said,
“A lot of what I do is like daydreaming. If you’re a writer, I imagine you would daydream in stories and words, but mine are more image oriented — shapes, colors, animals, faces, and textures. I just clump them all together and add and subtract along the way until something feels balanced and complete.”
Knowing this about Radke’s creative process, the most effective way for me to describe such exquisite creatures born of daydreams is to daydream about meeting them myself:
A firsthand encounter with one of these beings is most likely to occur in a natural setting, the wilder the better. Being alone is also essential — all alone and very quiet. Perhaps I’ve lost track of the trail while hiking in the woods or else I’m wending my way through an overgrown labyrinth. Maybe I’m out exploring some crumbling, mossy ruins in the middle of nowhere, as one does.
Wherever I find myself, Radke’s creatures won’t simply pop out of hiding and greet me. Instead, well aware of my presence from the moment I first set foot on their land, they carefully keep themselves out of sight. They peer out from safe shadowy spots and down from perches on high tree branches, observing me with interest to see if I merit concern or closer attention.
Eventually I begin to feel like something or someone is watching me. Several times I just barely discern a presence or slight movement in the periphery of my vision, but see nothing when I turn to look, so I continue walking. Assuming Radke’s creatures find me sufficiently interesting, they’ll follow me discreetly for some time, studying me with care, taking time to determine if I’m worth approaching.
I still can’t shake the feeling that I am not, in fact, alone, so I stop walking and stand quietly, watching the shadows and listening to the sounds of the forest as my sense of time slips away. Patience pays off as a few of them decide to make themselves visible, gradually emerging into lighter shadow and silently stealing closer. At last I can see them as all the while they continue watching me.
When not in some sort of animal or insect form (I believe these beings are fully capable of shape-shifting), Radke’s creatures often have simple bodies which tend to be rudimentary and small. If not a fish’s fins, bird’s talons, rabbit’s paws, or sprouting tree branches, they’re as likely to have small vestigial limbs as they are delicate elfin hands with which to gracefully gesture or tenderly wield a precious object.
My eyes are irresistibly drawn to their striking faces. Some have skin that looks more like wood, bark, or weathered stone than flesh. Their movements are sometimes so careful and slow as to be almost imperceptible. Their heads tilt and turn in an owl-like fashion as they quietly scrutinize me with shiny, coal-black eyes. Some blink slowly, some rapidly, some not at all. Meanwhile I’m doing my best to be calm and remain perfectly still.
I don’t imagine that Radke’s creatures are likely to speak to me. It’s not that I fancy them mute, but rather that speech is something reserved only for interactions with each other. Theirs is an arcane, earthy language that’s spoken softly and without hurry. For them, body language and the silences between words convey as much as words themselves.
Because Radke’s creatures are so quiet, reading their facial expressions is very important. At a glance, one might find their faces quite similar to each other. Their features share a sage world-weariness or melancholy, but it’s important to examine every face carefully, because each actually has a very unique expression.
Some are sorrowful or worried, while others wear less guarded expressions and appear inquisitive, amused, or even impish. Some have an open innocence about them that makes one hope they never experience the wider world beyond their wild environs.
Whatever their facial expression, it’s clear that these beings are keepers of primeval wisdom. They are also keepers of secrets, both secrets that are theirs alone and confidences whispered to them by strangers such as myself. If I am very lucky, eventually one of these mysterious beings will decide to approach me directly.
They draw very close and look deep into my eyes, silently daring me to look away, if not flee outright. If I don’t, if I am able to stand my ground and hold their enigmatic gaze, then they will lean in even closer still and cock their head to the side, wordlessly extending the invitation of a patient and receptive ear.
I take a slow, deep breath, close my eyes, and begin to share my secret. I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m going to say until the words leave my lips, almost of their own accord – as though my secret is being drawn out of me by the very presence of Scott Radke’s rare and wondrous creatures.
Thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign run by Kasra Ghanbari in 2015, Scott Radke’s first book has just been published. Scott Radke: Antumbra is a limited edition monograph covering his work from 1995 to 2015. The book is now available for pre-order, to be shipped in January 2018. Every copy pre-ordered before January 5, 2018 will come with a signed/embossed print and a signed/numbered signature plate.