Karl Umlauf, “Memorial,” 1990

As it has done several times in the past, Professor Jennifer Borland’s Fall survey class, ART 2613, included student research on objects in the permanent collection. This spring, we are featuring student work both on the blog and in the galleries: check the museum website’s calendar to find out when you can hear students present about their research in person!

This week’s post is based on work completed by Roxanne Beason, Kala McDonald, Bri Neal, and Jacob Smith. They researched Karl Umlauf’s 1990 relief sculpture, Memorial. Umlauf moved to Texas in 1966, where he started experimenting with fiberglass as a sculptural medium. In this excerpt from their research, Roxanne Beason explores Umlauf’s materials and techniques.

Karl Umlauf, professor of art and artist-in-residence at Baylor University.

Karl Umlauf, professor of art and artist-in-residence at Baylor University.

Explaining his interest in natural materials, Umlauf has stated that, ““the result [of tinkering with clay and sand] was astonishingly rewarding,” because they became “unique statements of a new and intrinsic surface.” At the same time, the forms and imagery of machines influenced his work: “There was a new intrigue … the influence of industrial technology and the energetic raw beauty of the dynamic machine.” Paradoxically, Umlauf began exploring the subject of mechanization using natural materials, incorporating the bones of extinct beasts and other excavated materials.

Karl Umlauf (American, b. 1939), “Memorial,” 1990. Acrylic on bovine bone, fiberglass, redwood and cedar wood, 46 x 96 x 8 inches. Gift of Karl and Shirley Umlauf, 2012.019.002.

Karl Umlauf (American, b. 1939), “Memorial,” 1990. Acrylic on bovine bone, fiberglass, redwood and cedar wood, 46 x 96 x 8 inches. Gift of Karl and Shirley Umlauf, 2012.019.002.

In Memorial, Umlauf uses shreds of cedar wood and redwood that are embedded within the fiberglass plaster to create the look of “roots” or deep earth. The fiberglass cast has been painted with acrylic in an array of natural hues including browns, greys and black—also representative of the organic imagery of soil below ground. The bones are the highlights that are fitted into the mold, as if the entire piece was a jigsaw puzzle. The bones are real, organic cattle bones taken from a ranch Umlauf had previously owned near Commerce, Texas. The bones are stretched out across the top of a fiberglass ‘mantel’ and are not arranged in any particular order.

“Memorial,” detail.

“Memorial,” detail.

Fiberglass is a silicate fiber made from small strands of glass. Fiberglass casting is done by creating a mold out of a gel coat or applying a gel coating shellac to a mold made of a different material, then applying the fiberglass matte within the mold and letting it cure according the mold. Fiberglass can also be sculpted, and once completely cured, carved.

Studies have shown inhaling fiberglass fibers can reduce lung function and cause inflammation. Working with fiberglass can cause skin, eye and throat irritation. When he was working with fiberglass, Umlauf would come home with his breath smelling like fiberglass fumes. After three years of forming with fiberglass he began to develop health problems and switched to different sculptural media.

Roxanne, Bri, Kala, and Jacob concluded their presentation with the suggestion that the form and materials of Memorial symbolized a grave. Coffin-shaped, the sculpture incorporates the bones of cattle that Umlauf had raised along with cedar and redwood shavings and fiberglass strands which evoke vegetation. 

We’ve blogged about Umlauf before: read OSUMA staff member Jordan Griffis’ post about traveling to Waco to pick up this work.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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