Enduring Attractions: Ritual and Play at the Caza Sikes Gallery

September 28th, 2019  |  Published in *, September 2019

The Art of the Automaton at Caza Sikes Gallery in Oakley boasts an array of interactive machines designed by seven artists from across the United States. They have honed their craft as builders since childhood, traveling to such places as Bali, Tanzania, Nigeria, Senegal, and Peru to develop their technique. Works by Dewey Blocksma, Randall Cleaver, Stephanie Cooper, Chris Fitch, Stewart Gordon, John Morgan, and Cecilia Schiller display a range of styles, with many expressing a folk art aesthetic grounded in commonplace things and found objects, and others exhibiting classic sculptural precision while having a decidedly modern sheen. Whether powered by tinker toy cranks or electricity, the automata combine eclectic materials into intricate arguments, some about the joys of play in adulthood, others about the multisensory character of memory, and still others about the mechanization of culture and society.

Figure 1: “Cathedral”, Dewey Blocksma

Dewey Blocksma tends to fuse those arguments into single works, as with Cathedral, which he describes as a depiction of Western society’s “internal combustion engine worship.” The piece contains a toy engine attended by brassy angels, the pistons and figurines doubling as architectural ornaments for a brightly colored house of worship. Lodged in the machine is a golden stone that reads “faith.” At the foot of the structure, a businessman moves purposefully with his case. As we turn the crank, the already pronounced conflation of motor and idol becomes an animated statement about secular ritual. Blocksma ties such statements to memories of childhood, when he broke away from prefabricated toys to make his own from driftwood on the beach. Those early experiences prefigured his enthusiasm for folk art, in which people make distinctively personal objects from materials close at hand. While versed in European instances that prize the transmission of values across generations, Blocksma finds himself drawn to the self-conscious eccentricity of US variations. “The more personal your work is and the more it looks like you the better,” he maintains, critiquing the routines of the art world as passionately as the realms of religion and economics. The challenge of the work lies not only in the rigor of its assembly, then, but in differentiating himself from fellow artists.

Stephanie Cooper shares Blocksma’s fascination with the convergence of the worldly and the sacred, as well as his cultivation of a highly personal style. Her Temple Doors draws on rougher materials than Cathedral, but it constitutes a similarly tiered structure where angels guard a revered interior. In Blocksma’s piece the object of worship is clearly visible; in Cooper’s it remains mysterious until the action of the automaton discloses the temple’s contents. Such action differs markedly from that of the hand-cranked gears and electrical processes that power the nearby works, relying instead on a heat engine composed of a copper box, a pressurized sphere of water, axles, pulleys, and a counterweighted bucket. Lighting a fire on top of the copper box catalyzes a series of reactions that slowly open the doors, revealing a statuette beckoning from a gilded interior. The figurine and accompanying angels evoke traditions passed on from epoch to epoch and modified to suit changing circumstances. The piece thereby embodies some of Blocksma’s ideas about European folk art while also calling up Cooper’s memories of dolls, cartoons, fairy tales, and her knowledge of “Haitian voodoo.” Her art reworks multicultural forms and genres in ways that address “everyday personal and emotional dramas.” What particular dramas the temple doors reveal remains unclear, though her grappling with the unconscious is frank and emphatic.

Figure 2: “Old Glory”, Chris Fitch

Other entries in the show hint at something akin to a collective unconscious, wryly observing the translation of human interaction into mechanized patterns. Chris Fitch’s Old Glory makes the point most bluntly, substituting a rippling dollar bill for a national banner. If the object of worship is initially hidden in Cooper’s work, it is all too apparent in Fitch’s, which echoes Blocksma’s rendering of commerce as a social motor and area of psychic fixation. Old Glory is considerably more stripped down than Cathedral or Temple Doors, though it relies on more obviously modern materials, looking as much like a signal tower as a flag, sending out pulses of information in every direction. The fence at the base of the pole confers a monumental quality on the object, however slender the work appears on first approach. The product of a sculptor-engineer-inventor who has designed puppets and miniature theaters for major symphonies, and who has worked for Disneyland, Motorola, and Samsung, the waving bill may be as personal a statement for Fitch as Temple Doors is for Cooper. Comments on the social unconscious most always implicate the critic, though some acknowledge that truth more readily than others. Beyond its technical wizardry, the mixture of reflexive perception with broad comedy is what gives Old Glory its power.

Figure 3: “Politics as Usual”, Randall Cleaver

Whereas Fitch takes a jab at money worship, Randall Cleaver targets the genre of the political advertisement. Devising a small theater from a gas heater, he populates Politics as Usual with marionette-style figures that are either dancing in an especially risky way or deliberately kicking each other in the midsection. The simultaneous availability of both interpretations gives the work a kind of acidic charm, as does the careful staging of the interaction. Old-fashioned curtains frame the figures while above their heads a placard reads “the following are paid political announcements and in no way reflect the opinion of the management.” A clock keeps time just below the stage, underscoring the banal rhythms of the production while a music box plays “Happy Days are Here Again.” A metal switch invites us to vote. Cleaver is an accomplished sculptor, horologer, and connoisseur of junkyard treasures, and he brings those talents together for a send-up of campaign mudslinging and its awful predictability. The materials give the work an aged quality, though it could hardly be timelier. The antique character of Politics as Usual lends the piece its best bit of irony.

Figure 4: “Fireflies Revenge”, John Morgan

With his merger of the voting booth, campaign propaganda, and theater, Cleaver marks the ways the same machines we purport to control end up controlling us. John Morgan makes a parallel argument, and one at least as funny, with Fireflies Revenge. The work finds a wooden boy trapped within a large jar, looking downward at his own jar of fireflies—and perhaps also at the latticework of his torso, noticing his condition as a tightly encased machine. When we activate the automaton, he knocks on the glass, wonders at his confinement, and then drops his head again. On first approach, the sculpture lacks the critical bite of Old Glory or Politics as Usual, but after reflection, it serves to synthesize ideas that appear throughout the show. After thirty years of making kinetic sculptures and exhibiting them around the world, Morgan has become highly attuned to the metaphorical resonances of automation, condensing them into a comic showstopper where the joke is on the independent, self-determining human agent.

But even as many of the pieces express this critical awareness, others focus on the pleasures of memory, evoking the sensory fullness of outdoor play. Those entries have a toy-like character, though Stewart Gordon observes that his sculptures are not meant for children but “rather intended to give joy to adults.” Haunted House, for example, recaptures the Octobers of youth as ghosts and skeletons lurk in abandoned rooms while witches and bats circle overhead. As we crank the machine, large jaws open and clamp just inside the main floor, creating the feel of German expressionism while turning the façade into a monstrous visage. The rickety tilt of the house belies a sure-handed carpenter: dashed off shingles and coarse wooden textures contrast the intricate mesh of rods and gears that feed through the floors. Gordon’s Memory of Winter demonstrates equally delicate craftsmanship while offering a similar invitation for adults to play. It affords a snowy world of fishermen and skaters, eagles and swans, moose and bears, all linked in mechanical as well as ecological senses to the life beneath the lake. He describes such works as attempting “to catch a moment, freeze it and then melt it into action.” The thawing, or the bringing to life of the fly rod, the clouds, and the swimming fish, requires the direct participation of the audience as well as a certain letting go, a relaxation into nostalgia.

Figure 5: “Haunted House”, Stewart Gordon

Seasonal scenes run throughout the show, summoning viewers to set the autumn leaves in motion, animate the cross-country skier, or admire the summer fair. Everything undergoes vibrant transition: blooming roses wake the dead; a guitar becomes a bearded singer; the moon drops its jaw in astonishment. Civic and religious rituals exchange places while personal and social psychology become thoroughly interwoven. The readymade materials of folk art come together for purposes of critique and celebration, eliciting laughter, longing, and grief, sometimes all in the same piece. Those materials clarify the enduring attraction of toys, even for those who resolved long ago to put away childish things.

–Christopher Carter

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