After a few years, he began sculpting facsimiles of flowers and sedum, and assembling floriated urns, sensors, and crowns out of singularly formed clay petals and leaves. These he baked in his kitchen oven before painting. He also began assembling fantastical miniature thrones out of salvaged turkey and chicken bones that, to contemporary eyes, resemble props for a sci-fi video game, or early models for ’s
computer-generated Bone chair.
Out of these investigations, EVB developed a whole new body of work, beginning in 1976: his tower paintings. These he created with an entirely new painting technique, in which he used the fluted ends of pieces of cardboard to apply paint onto a smooth cardboard surface, producing what looks like linear structures, which he then “built” with. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of decalcomania, a technique closely associated with Ernst; EVB’s palette resembles Ernst’s, as well. These utopian visions of a splendid new world may speak of a new civilization to come, or possibly the artist’s own arrival in a new metaphysical realm.
As if to ground his vision in a tangible reality, in 1979, EVB began assembling actual towers, each several feet tall, using poultry bones. Leg, wing, and breastbones served as the base, and smaller, thinner bones and vertebrae formed the shaft. Some of the structures are crowned, fittingly enough, with hollow eggs. So many bones were required for the series that EVB and Marie had to raid the dumpsters behind local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants to acquire the necessary supplies. If they bear a certain resemblance to the Watts Towers in L.A., that isn’t by coincidence: A newspaper clipping about Simon Rodia’s creations was found among EVB’s personal papers. (Interestingly, these works may be the first instance of one “outsider artist” influencing another.)
In 1981, two years before he died, EVB returned to his tower paintings. City Cibola, one of the last he completed before his death, refers to the mythic Mexican city rich in gold, which tantalized the conquistadors.
The promise of riches certainly eluded Von Bruenchenhein his entire life; but then, the curse of the prophet is that he seldom lives to see the promised land. In one of his philosophical musings, he observed: “We consider ourselves so smart and yet after the great length of time man has lived on Earth, he has just scratched the surface of knowledge. . . .As far as science goes we have only looked at the mirror, not [at] what is concealed behind.” Von Bruenchenhein may never have experienced critical acclaim or financial reward for his unique talents and vision, but it seems he did get to see behind the mirror. That’s a reward reserved for only a chosen few.