Bodies for sale
Sculptor Dan Corbin has spent over a decade honing his craft in Chico. Now his efforts are paying off on a larger stage
He paid me in burritos and beer.
Tucked away in a sweatbox behind Chico’s Drive-by Gallery on West Seventh Street, I gleefully braved the heat of his cinderblock workshop to stir liquid goo while he prepared casts for his molds. He was a struggling and hard-working student sculptor who needed a hand. And, at the end of the workday, I was an elated assistant, compensated with a fat two-dollar burrito and an equally fat 40 ounces of domestic beer.
That was more than a dozen years ago, and Dan Corbin is no longer struggling. He is still a hard-working artist, but over the past decade the struggle has been gradually replaced with success. “Everything I’ve made since ‘91 is in a collection or a gallery,” Corbin says. He’s not exaggerating. The sculptures that he’s worked his whole life perfecting are now selling for upwards of $10,000 and are scattered all over the country in over 200 private and public collections (including those of rock star Elton John and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck).
With increasing fame as one of the mainstays of the West Coast Contemporary scene, demand for this Chico artist’s work is still on the rise. His compound of workshops, tucked away in an orchard on the outskirts of Los Molinos, is humming with activity. The local boy is doing pretty well, as he prepares for an onslaught of exhibits in San Francisco, Palm Springs and Carmel.
“I’m a figurative sculptor,” Corbin explains. This is apparent. The shops, staging areas and warehouse spaces clumped together on his property have figures all over the place. There’s a stack of torsos waiting to be fused to the other half of their bodies; a spooky-looking clay baby frozen on a pedestal surrounded by various plastic dolls and doll parts; and an army of headless, armless women, composed of a variety of materials, waiting in line for the next show.
Using various detritus—such as old dolls, perfume bottles incased in resin, sheets of metal or bundles of sticks—Corbin induces the additions to rise to the surfaces of the bodies he’s creating. “I enjoy the experimentation,” he admits. “I come up with some new material, some new idea, some new process, and I get to participate in the thing I like to do the most.” He uses the deconstruction of these timeless human forms as means for illuminating the issues he’s addressing in his art. “I take conceptual ideas and the figures and stick ’em together.”
“Body equals product” is the manifesto at the center of this conceptual process. Corbin counts on the process to keep him connected, to “illuminate what it feels like to be alive during these times.”
“I’m bringing content back to the figure,” he reveals. “I talk about a loss of cultural ground and a loss of mystery. [We’re] nothing but mindless goddamn consumers.”
Corbin’s workplace, appropriately enough, reflects the ideas and issues in his art. The orchard foundation of his compound is overgrown, bursting out of the well-groomed organization forced upon it by the previous tenants. And the rooms connecting his modeling, molding and casting operations are overgrown as well. Tools, machines, chemicals, garbage and of course discarded body parts are piled high, inside and outside each building. Even the main house is not so much a dwelling as a storeroom of drawings, paintings, and clothes. “I’m trying to just be alive at this moment,” Corbin admits.
The North State has had a huge influence on Corbin. “My father had three pieces of land, in Live Oak, Gridley and Yuba City,” Corbin remembers. “Since we had orchards, we worked the ground. I grew up with clay.” Raised on peach and prune farms, Corbin says his rural environment provided him with an eclectic education in using his hands. “My dad and his buddies were good at welding and cement,” he continues. “That’s the beginning of it right there.”
Corbin entered UC Santa Barbara to pursue a B.A. in art and found his niche almost immediately. “The guy gave us clay—I already knew all about it.” Corbin would eventually give up on “clay as a finished medium” and move on to using it solely for creating the molds for what would become his sculpting process.
Returning to Chico, Corbin went to work experimenting and perfecting his sculpting process, as well as pursuing his master’s in art at Chico State. “All the things I did before were all pieces: molding, welding, building and the general knowledge of how to apply it. But I hadn’t put it all together.”
Settling in Chico provided the low-key, low-cost existence necessary for spending so much time working on art. It also continued to influence how Corbin looked at things.
“Sculpture is textural,” Corbin explains. “This area is a sculptural area, with all the textures you see in the country: bald rock, the rivers. I’ve got rocks in half my sculptures.”
In 1994, Corbin was running out of money and hope for making a career of art, when he was asked to replace a cancellation at the Redding Art Museum. “I went down and hawked all my tools. That was going to be my last show,” Corbin remembers. “[It was the] strangest sequence of events.”
He was a last-minute addition to a two-person show with famed Chico printmaker Janet Turner. Because of her, the opening was covered on the local news by Debbie Cobb. “It got air. And I sold several pieces as result.”
One of those pieces made its way into the hands of an old friend, whose efforts on his behalf got Corbin into a show at the Crocker-Kingsley Art Museum in Sacramento. Word of Corbin was passed onto another friend who also bought a piece, which helped land the artist another show, this one at Seattle’s Artist Contemporary Gallery.
“Those two things gave me a stamp of approval,” Corbin says. He became someone “worth watching.”
With the door to the art world cracked slightly, Corbin began to build upon his visibility, forcing himself out of his left-brain-ness, acquiring connections. His experience in Seattle led him to Claire Calaberro, at the Art Exchange in S.F. “She sold like 30 of my works,” he remembers. “She knew all the collectors in S.F. Once I got with her, she started selling those damn things.”
New York, Palm Beach, and the prestigious Fay Gold Gallery in Atlanta have all exhibited his work. And, in February, his one-man show at S.F.'s Caldwell Snyder Gallery will unveil a new series of steel sculptures.
“It’s a modern time,” he says, “and anything goes. In the art world right now, there are so many places you can get into. And if people are into the work, they’re going to want to be a part of it.”
Corbin goes on to explain that it’s important for artists to “stay committed to a particular area and do the very best they can,” adding, “I know the figurative tradition. I’m a three-chord guy.”
Pleased with his success, Corbin is now just looking to get more exposure. Citing the standard that most artists strive for as being "Make one for myself and two for the marketplace," he now can say, "I get to make two for myself and one for the marketplace."