Tom Driscoll is, in one revealing sense, a quintessential San Diego artist. Not because of his approach to the object or the imagery in his work, but in the way he has created a significant and compelling body of work and still remains a relative unknown outside of the borders of the county. For many of the best artists working in San Diego, unfortunately, this is pretty much the norm.
But if life as a relative unknown bothers Driscoll, it doesn't show. In fact, he is looking quite pleased. That is because he has a solo exhibition at ICE Gallery in the Barrio Logan neighborhood that has exceeded his expectations. It's a space devoted to installations of work by a small number of emerging artists that is run by an artist, Michael James Armstrong. He has created a striking display of Driscoll's sculptures.
"His work has such ingenuity," says Armstrong. "He comes up with unorthodox solutions to what we wants to do with his work."
You might even say the show was two decades in the making. These cast concrete works -- elegantly simple but rich in surface effects -- were created mostly in 1996. Conical in shape and richly varied in color, they lean this way and that, creating a dynamic ensemble. Their scale ranges form monumental to miniature. Their chief source is a fuel tank that takes on a halfway fantastical and subliminally symbolic identity in his art.
"It's fulfilling to see them outside of my garage," he says, displaying his characteristically understated style.
Encouraged to elaborate just a bit, Driscoll adds, "I guess I really have done something. I didn't let anything get in the way when I made these. I didn't worry about any sense of careerism."
Much of his "doing" has taken place, for the last fifteen years, in a modest suburban home in the eastern part of San Diego County. The studio proper is a simple structure, a bit like an airy storage shed, positioned in a portion of his backyard. Installations of past work continue in a room off of the patio and the garage.
Driscoll, now 69, is a native of San Diego who spent his earliest years living near Mission Bay, before his family moved to the southern part of the county, settling in Chula Vista. He resembles a gracefully aging scholar, with his dark rimmed glasses, graying head of hair and his pensive manner of speaking. He has forged an impressive body of work without the benefit of formal academic study; he has neither a B.F.A. nor an M.F.A.
But a naïf he is not. A high school teacher, John Clark, was pivotal in his art education. He loved the work of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Barbara Hepworth.
"He [Clark] always had books in his little private classroom storage room," Driscoll recalls, "and introduced me to the important 'tools' needed to carve material: mallets, gouges, and rasps. The book images open my eyes as to scale, form, and just a feeling of what was possible with direct carving. "
When he got out of the service in 1966, after serving part of his three years in the Dominican Republic, Driscoll had the good fortune to enroll at Southwestern College in Chula Vista at a time (before UCSD existed) when it was one of the epicenters of art activity in San Diego County. John Baldessari, who became a pivotal figure in the history of Conceptual Art, was teaching there at the time. So were some innovative artists who didn't become broadly known, like Robert Matheny and Gary Hudson. The lectures he heard from visiting artists remain indelible to Driscoll. They included the likes of Robert Irwin and Newton Harrison.
Driscoll is happy with his suburban studio now, but he found his "voice" as an artist when he lived and worked in downtown San Diego, in the early 1980s.
It was a good time to be downtown. Space was cheap, galleries increased (at least temporarily) and there was a critical mass of artistic kindred spirits: artists like Jay Johnson, Barbara Sexton, Lynn Engstrom, Ellen Salk, Gary Ghirardi and Richard Allen Morris. All remain integral to the San Diego art ecology, with the exception of Ghirardi, who moved to South America several years ago.
For Driscoll, meeting Morris turned out to be crucial. They would have studios in the same building for a few years, cementing their friendship.
"Richard is my biggest influence," he asserts.
He first encountered Morris -- who, in the last two decades, has risen from obscurity to broad international renown -- in 1980 or '81 in Bargain Books, one of a string of bookshops in which Morris made his living.
Driscoll didn't feel as if he was doing anything much, but his new acquaintance saw it differently. Like Driscoll, Morris is inclined toward understatement. Morris told him: "I think you've got something there. You have something to offer the world that is special."
Driscoll was ecstatic. "I have survived an artist because of knowing Richard," Driscoll says.
It's a measure of their bond that when Morris was awarded the annual San Diego Art Prize, administered by the San Diego Visual Arts Network, for an "established artist" in 2009 and had the option of picking an emerging artist for a companion prize, he chose Driscoll. There were grumbles about his pick. Was Driscoll, after all, really an emerging artist? And his exhibition history locally is fairly extensive. But Morris didn't waver.
Driscoll's aesthetic is paradoxical. He is an exacting craftsman and formalist who draws inspiration from castoff materials. Driscoll's longtime day-job in maintenance at a lab of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in Point Loma -- from 1983 to 2006 -- presented him with a trove of materials from which he experimented with making molds.
Resin was his breakthrough material in the 1980s, but the cast concrete works in the 1990s elevated his work, in terms of scale and effect. A decade or so ago, he took the casting in a different direction, One of his happiest finds, about a decade ago, were a trove of packing cases for industrial equipment and for toys, most in styrofoam. He made molds of the spaces inside them and in turn cast sculpture in many colors from these. They yielded a virtual phantasmagoria of shapes that elude definition, but somehow look halfway familiar. Clearly, he still holds these works in high regard; a wall in the space that adjoins his studio is filled with them.
There is a new sculpture in his studio modest in size and with an emphasis on tubular forms.
It's entitled "2116 C Street," an implicit homage to Morris, since he found the form which provided his mold while dumpster diving near Morris' studio. This kind of scavenging is a passion they share.
Driscoll shows me the mold and talks about casting it in again, to the get closer to the effect he seeks. The existing version is in grey. He thinks it will look much better in white.
"Most of my methods have just been invented as I went along," he says, his assessment as self-deprecating as ever "But I have refined my craft to the point where I don't make mistakes like I used to."
The exhibition,"Tom Driscoll," continues through May 2 at the ICE Gallery, 1955 Julian Ave., San Diego, CA.