Gallery Gadgets

Carnegie show of whimsical devices bridges art world and household.

By JOSEF WOODARD, Special to The Times

     It would be hard to imagine a better midsummer day's art exhibition than the carnival of notions now filling Oxnard's Carnegie Art Museum. "Current Devices: The Electro-Mech Art of Andy Schuessler" offers a fine and imaginative example of kinetic art of the plugged-in, whimsical sort, deceptively light in its attitude and eager to bring new life to kitchen appliances.

You know something out of the ordinary is afoot from the minute you walk into the museum, which is full of artworks that rock and move and emit tiny sounds. It appears like nothing so much as an artistic fun house, a good antidote for gallery-phobes who dread the self-seriousness in art spaces.

But if it were only that, the Santa Monica-based Schuessler's work would quickly wear out its welcome. The artist, who is aptly described as a "philosopher, tinker, clockmaker and entertainer" manages to combine mythology, religious history, plenty of kitsch and that American brand of garage-lab ingenuity.

Taking in this show involves a high degree of the "pleasant surprise" factor, and a spirit of interactivity. "Lilith, Daughter of the Nightwind" addresses the legendary symbol of feminist spirit, reputed to be Adam's first wife. Wing-like fabric opens and closes while a cheap globe spins in a makeshift spotlight, and the whole thing is connected to a stepladder such as you might find in Mrs. Cleaver's pantry.

Walk over to the "Clock of Heaven/Hammer of God," one of three pieces affixed to ironing boards, and press a foot switch to watch a car window handle, golf club and pendulum with fishing weight do its dance.

Generally, Schuessler's work takes its status as serious art lightly, but without unrepentant silliness. He pushes toward entertainment, while exploring the nitty-gritty of life in the household and the art world.

The latter is especially true of his frame-oriented series. Instead of allowing painting frames to be simply functional or decorative, he puts them to work, pressing them into aesthetic service.

Step on a foot switch and watch as the ornate gilded frame of "Eclipse/Moons of Jupiter" rotates as if set into modest orbit. The motion is more back and forth, fittingly enough, in "It's High on the Left, Right?," with a frame shuffling for position, searching for that elusive perfect angle.

"Untitled Empty Frame Number Two" is elegant in a crackpot way, a frame-within-a-frame suspended by springs, which cause it to shimmy at regular intervals. In California parlance, we could call the movements little seismic episodes.

Various household objects are also given new, theatricalized life in Schuessler's work. "Quaking Palm" is a large feather duster disguised as tree plumage, set on a tall pole, which shakes (the seismic reference returns) at the press of a switch.

Little bells and music-box guts are put together in lamp parts and other domestic bric-a-brac for "The Choirboys," which produces joyful, distracted noises when you flip a series of light switches.

In one gallery, remade into a mock living room, the visitor sits on a chair before a slightly ominous, slightly silly-looking contraption, with a vintage vacuum cleaner, a rocking chair and warning lights, which come to life when you press a series of buttons.

His "Temptation of St. Anthony," on the back wall, is a rusty assemblage honoring the early Christian saint who lived out his final years as an ascetic in a cave, ringing bells to ward off evil spirits.

This tribute is rigged with a motorized eggbeater, gauges, a tiny bell, Christmas lights, and, ah yes, a tiny tilting painting frame--a miniature link to his frame work in the gallery.

It's no accident. Schuessler's show coheres into a sum effect, in which the parts work together, just as the seemingly disparate components in a specific piece conspire toward a new identity. That unity also extends to the sonic domain.

In the gallery, we heard the scattered, tinkly tones of music-box gears played so slowly that the notes don't so much signify melodies as they articulate the gallery's three-dimensional space.

There's a strange, living spirit in the museum, part profound, part jester. This is art of the tilted, and tilting, frame.