Elements of the Macabre

Give 'em bric-a-brac, and these artists can build a mechanical metaphor.

One of the truly gestalt moments of Bernie Lubell’s long artmaking career came, ironically, out of a budget restriction. A gallery where he was setting up a show refused to move a wall to accommodate one of his sculpture-installations, claiming it would be too expensive. So Lubell improvised, installing half the piece in one room and half in the adjacent space, rigging levers and pulleys and rubber tubes so that it still functioned, but now required two people to fully appreciate — one to work the controls, the other to observe the results.

The jury-rigged setup turned out to be unexpectedly satisfying. Lubell’s sculptures had always had a participatory aspect, requiring viewers to turn cranks, don headgear, or listen for sounds. Now, however, it became necessary to bring friends, or to interact with strangers (imagine!) to make the gizmos work. At a later exhibition, the same sculpture caused a little inside turmoil when attendees started asking museum guards to help them work it. For the powers-that-be, it was too unnerving a role-reversal for the guards, whose usual job was to prevent anyone from touching anything, and that was quickly the end of that.

Lubell seems to take a kind of subtle glee not only in breaking down the usual social codes of art-viewing, but also in requiring viewers to put themselves through vaguely embarrassing physical contortions. As an artist schooled in physics, psychology, and biology, he is supremely skilled in the art of manipulating people’s bodies and minds alike. One of his sculptures, Cheek to Cheek, requires viewers to put on headgear, sit on a stool, and move their butts around. The movement pumps air through latex bladders and pneumatic tubes to the headgear, giving the person a cheek massage. It feels good, but it looks absurd, and requires a certain willingness to endure public embarassment.

It’s also quite possible — not easy, but possible — to break Lubell’s sculptures, since they’re mostly made out of latex and pine, which aren’t the world’s most durable materials. A longtime San Francisco resident, Lubell figures that most local shows will require a certain amount of overtime in the gallery, fixing whatever fell victim to overzealous school kids that week. Often, however, he leaves the patches and glue visible. Like human bodies, his artworks bear the marks of past “surgeries,” but they generally seem proud of their battle scars.

Lubell doesn’t stop with a few scars, either. Many of his works include elements of the downright macabre, such as the wheezy gasp of Quicken, in which the visitor squeezes a latex bulb and is rewarded with sounds of labored breathing. The Etiology of Innocence includes a weird, beating latex heart submerged in a chamber of clear liquid (probably water, but intended to look like something out of a laboratory), and his newest construction, ... and the Synapse Sweetly Singing, includes a full-size coffin made out of pine planks. Visitors are instructed to take off their shoes, lie down on a wooden slab, and turn a hand-crank to roll themselves into the coffin. Once you’re inside, other people can talk to you through an elaborate tin-can telephone system. All of the sounds, of course, get completely distorted in Lubell’s network of speakers, amplifiers, and microphones, and seem even stranger in combination with the prerecorded dripping-water soundtrack reverberating throughout the gallery.

This is the first-ever public showing of the latter contraption, which is by far the most electronic-intensive of any of Lubell’s sculptures. He loves to show off the inner workings of all his pieces, and the electronics prove to be no exception. The circuit boards and microphones are presented for our inspection, rather than closed up in a cabinet somewhere — he even trains small spotlights onto these parts so we’ll be sure to notice their shiny exposed faces. It’s almost as if he’s daring us to fiddle with these fragile components, an impulse that belies a kind of naive trust in the public, although none of the stuff he uses seems particularly expensive. His materials, in fact, have a deliberately rough aesthetic, with unsanded wooden edges and gobs of glue showing everywhere, extra parts sticking out every which way, and odd tubes and ventricles plugged with corks. But the overall impression is hardly amateurish; it’s more like a Frankenstein effect, as if a mad scientist has been too busy hacking away at body parts to bother making sure they fit together precisely.

Lubell shares the gallery space with Chico-based sculptor and installation artist Sheri Simons. Like Lubell, Simons also uses ephemeral materials like wood and string, and creates art that is, in various ways, unstable, or fragile, or precarious.

Sayonara, Simons’ contribution to the show, is a model electric train running around a circular track about twenty feet in diameter, which is in turn mounted on a huge balsa-wood substructure suspended from a single point on the ceiling so that the entire track is free to sway back and forth. As the train rounds the circle, its weight drags down that portion of the track, and the whole structure swings around somewhat like a giant slow-motion hula hoop, or a spinning coin as it settles toward a tabletop. The whole thing creates a sense of narrowly averted disaster; if the track were to sway any lower, the train would tumble off and wreck; but it continues its journey, either in blissful ignorance or else excited to court danger in this tightly controlled fashion.

It might seem strange to attribute such sentience to a toy locomotive, but Simons clearly wants us to see it as an active player in this drama she has created. She even dresses it up with a little ruffle around its neck (or perhaps it’s a tutu around the waist) as though the train were a ballerina or prize poodle. It must get bored, the viewer speculates, as it chugs around and around, but its eternal searching-for-Godot presence offers a symbolic complement to the landscape Simons has built around the track — dozens of rural, small-town buildings made out of cardboard. Each has a generic aspect — a trailer, a meat processing plant, a grain storage facility — but all speak in a familiar, and perhaps even nostalgic architectural language to anyone who, like Simons, calls California’s Central Valley home.

And yet, you can’t go home again, the artist seems to suggest, just as you can never resurrect childhood innocence no matter how carefully you reconstruct your old toys. The endless round-and-round of an electric train is inevitably less satisfying to a grown-up than it is to a kid. What used to be pure entertainment now serves, ironically enough, as a metaphor for life’s daily grind. Whether it is in denial or simply naive, the tutu-clad train perseveres, unaware of its goofy apparel and lack of a destination — until someone decides to flip the switch.nGive ’em bric-a-brac, and these artists can build a mechanical metaphor.

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