Frank Strunk forges Geometry, Life, Rust at St. Petersburg's C. Emerson Fine Arts

click to enlarge STRANGELY SEDUCTIVE: "Intersected," by Frank Strunk III. - Courtesy Emerson Fine Arts
Courtesy Emerson Fine Arts
STRANGELY SEDUCTIVE: "Intersected," by Frank Strunk III.

Anyone who has suffered chronic pain understands that it's a game-changer; tasks that once seemed effortless — from lifting or stretching to maintaining an upbeat demeanor — require grimace-inducing exertion. Simply holding the question "Why me?" at bay often demands Herculean effort.

Since an undercover law enforcement officer struck Frank Strunk III's car at a stoplight three and a half years ago, the St. Petersburg artist has dealt with chronic pain. It's the kind of severe discomfort that causes Strunk, who supplements his earnings with carpentry work, to pause in the middle of physical effort as his eyes fill with tears. A stocky guy with a penchant for telling listeners exactly what's on his mind, Strunk just looks as though he has a high pain threshold — but get him talking about the accident, and hurt and frustration saturate his voice.

Given the emotional intensity of his experience, it's surprising that Strunk has managed to channel his feelings into a new body of work where pain, process and change are delicately calibrated motifs — present, but not overwhelming. A continuation of his longstanding interest in metal assemblage, the pieces — along with more artwork in which pain plays a less visible role — are on view through Nov. 1 at C. Emerson Fine Arts in downtown St. Pete.

Pieced together from metal rectangles and studded with rivets, Strunk's wall-mounted assemblages possess a clear connection to the organic, despite their industrial origins; their "skins" become a canvas where the artist orchestrates patches and swirls of oxidation. In pieces where pain serves as the literal subject matter, indicated by the title, representation sometimes rears its head — as in "Spine and Shoulder", where a long hook-like swath of rust suggests a path of inflammation coursing from the shoulder down the backbone of an abstracted body.

But even in pieces like "Intersected," where the seams of metal fragments join to create a scar worthy of Frankenstein, the strange seductiveness of Strunk's surfaces — whether crusty with rust or smoothly rippled — lightens the work's occasionally heavy mood. In "Liberated Flow", gentle waves of coppery oxidation chase away any thoughts but those of ethereal beauty.

To regard all of Strunk's work through a lens of pain would shortchange it. The exhibit's kinetic pieces (there are three of them) evince wry humor about the Promethean nature of life more than they dwell on the hopelessness of suffering. One such piece arranges eight hammers around a wooden wheel; as a motorized crank moves them up and down, the hammers strike the same set of nails in perpetuity with an occasional creak or whine.

A multi-channel video installation uses life's brevity and monotony as its subject matter — again, with a witty twist that keeps the artwork in the territory of black humor. The video, which intermittently features an animated X-ray skeleton jogging in place, peers out from dark-stained boxes surrounded by wrenches and hand-drills. I take it as an expression of the artist's commitment to finding purpose to life in the connection between his materials and the mental and physical processes he uses to shape them — pain or no pain.

Judging by the offerings at Geometry, Life, Rust, these days Strunk is living up to that old Nietzschean maxim: What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

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