Arts & Entertainment: ‘Natural History of the Surreal’

// Handforth offers rare chance to see work by master carver Otto Youngers

  • WILD WOOD. "Moose Lodge Bible" is a work in Otto Youngers' lavish show of surreal wood carvings on display at Tacoma Public Library's Handforth Gallery through Oct. 5. Youngers works primarily with found wood to build his 3-d social satires. (Photo BY Dave R. Davison)

  • WILD WOOD. "Incredible Supreme 9" is a work in Otto Youngers' lavish show of surreal wood carvings on display at Tacoma Public Library's Handforth Gallery through Oct. 5. Youngers works primarily with found wood to build his 3-d social satires. (Photo BY Dave R. Davison)

Skulls, shoes, horned beasts, vertebrae, rib cages, swords, battle axes, bulbous fingers, more shoes, monumental horses and skeletal fish… Imagine all of this carved out of wood and assembled into a cast of characters and critters like macabre marionettes that inhabit a series of in-the-round dioramas. That is the essence of Tacoma artist Otto Youngers’ new show beginning a stint at the Handforth Gallery (which is housed in the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library downtown). The show, called “The Natural History of the Surreal,” consists of hundreds of individual elements – mostly carved from recycled wood – that are assembled into foreboding, skeletal figures, animals and a variety of implements, accoutrements and weaponry. The modest space of the Handforth gallery cannot contain Younger’s exuberance and scale and so much of the show spills out into the library.

Youngers describes his work with the term “benevolent malevolence.” His themes of war, corporatism and horror of the new security state are presented by creatures that are as comical as they are menacing. By this means, he bursts the bubble of such forces and robs them of their gravitas. “U.S.S. Miss Fitz,” for example, is a little boat full of would-be conquistadores. The heavy headed figures are armed with swords and the crusaders’ cross. They are made comical, however, by the small size of their “ship,” which is more like the tub of the proverbial butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

“The New & Improved Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” greets visitors to the library. Horned, skull-headed figures sit astride horses with big, barrel-like bodies. The skeletal figures hold swords and battle-axes in their knobby fingers. Claws jut out the tips of their cartoonish shoes. Youngers cites the German woodcut printer Albrecht Durer of the northern renaissance as inspiration for his depiction of the biblical horsemen of doom. “Queque” is a haunting scene of pairs of wooden shoes done in various styles. They are all arranged as if their occupants were “raptured” while waiting to go through airport security. Only the shoes remain. Youngers is here making a statement on the hoops that we must increasingly jump through as the security apparatus of the state becomes ever more ubiquitous.

“Future, Past, Now” occupies much of the floor space of Handforth Gallery proper. This tableau, laid out on a checkerboard floor, features skeletal figures next to little tables upon which are small, framed panels with intimate and intricate little scenes burned into the wood.

The venerable art of wood burning images and designs into wooden surfaces is a new direction for Youngers. The show features a number of wall-mounted panels upon which surreal scenes are done with wood burning tools. Each of the panels started life as the side of a crate. Youngers allows his surfaces to remain true to themselves. Bent nails and blemishes and dings are all still there. One had a workman’s boot prints on it and Youngers used the wood burning tools to burn the boot prints onto the surface permanently. It is upon these rustic surfaces that Youngers burns scenes of scary clowns, fingers, eyeballs, and wobbly vegetative forms. His loosey-goosey style comes across as wonderful doodles taken from a sketchbook and burned into the wood. Youngers noted that wood burning allows him to do something akin to drawing or painting while still allowing the rough surfaces to remain testament to what they are and have been: the sides of crates meant to take all the punishment of shipping and handling while protecting the contents inside.

“The Natural History of the Surreal” is a rare chance to see Youngers’ work since he deals in such a large scale that few local galleries are able to contain his shows. Youngers is an important and inspiring local artist. The official artist’s reception for the show takes place Aug. 24, 2-4 p.m. The show runs through Oct. 5. For further information visit


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