Kinetic sculpture exhibit: The poetics of movement

A moving show that opened quietly in the Titelman Gallery of the Vero Beach Museum of Art last month will amuse, astonish and mesmerize, and may very well bring you back for another look. “Kinetics: the Poetics of Movement” features 16 sculptures by six American kinetic sculptors. The show was curated in house, which means that it was developed by the museum especially for Vero Beach. It won’t be seen anywhere else.

Along with works loaned from artists, private collectors and New York’s Maxwell Davidson Gallery, the exhibition also features a new acquisition to the VBMA permanent collection, an untitled sculpture by Minneapolis-based kinetic artist Bruce Stillman. The art work was donated to the museum by beachside resident Dr. James G. Punches, in memory of his wife Betty Punches.

“It came as a gift right at the time we were putting the exhibition together,” says VBMA Curator Jay Williams. “You always welcome good fortune whenever it happens.”

The exhibition got its start about two years ago, when Williams and Executive Director Lucinda Gedeon were thinking about a show for the Titelman Gallery that would complement the exhibition planned for the adjacent Schumann Gallery, the current Carol Brown Goldberg painting show.

“Kinetic Sculpture: The Poetics of Movement” holds its own and then some to the crystal-encrusted paintings of Goldberg. If the Schumann Gallery is a mysterious, sparkling Aladdin’s cave, then the Titelman Gallery is the light at the end of the tunnel where gleaming sculptures flash and turn in spotlighted brilliance.

Williams says that providing “a little glitz” to this fall’s aesthetic offerings was only part of the idea. He cites the popularity of the museum’s 2007 George Rickey retrospective as a determining factor in producing another kinetic show.

George Rickey, in fact, is represented by two elegant pieces in the current exhibition; the other artists are Pedro S. de Movellán, Lin Emery, Anne Lilly, Tim Prentice and Bruce Stillman.

In organizing the exhibition, Williams says that he originally planned “to demonstrate a tradition of kinetic sculpture that had been passed down.”

While Rickey’s shadow is long enough to touch the work of all of the other sculptors in the exhibition, Williams found the motivations behind each artist’s work were too complex to trace to any single influence.

He ultimately decided to show how each generation following Rickey has shown that the field of kinetic art is large and fertile enough to produce a variety of ideas and methods. In this he succeeds. The novelty of kinetic sculpture has not dulled since Rickey introduced the slender wand-like arms of his first notable kinetic series over 60 years ago. Or for that matter, since Alexander Calder (whose work influenced Rickey) brought out his “mobiles” in 1932.

In the current show, Lin Emery stands out as being Rickey’s closest stylistic descendant. Born 20 years after Rickey, Emery was not the older artist’s student, but a colleague in kinetic art.

Emery’s early kinetic sculptures were driven by moving water and later by magnets, Williams explains.

“Rickey helped her with the technical aspects of air movement,” says Williams. After Rickey introduced her to a highly efficient type of bearing, Emery decided to use air currents as the energy source for all of her subsequent sculptures.

There are two works by Emery in the Poetics of Movement show. Both “Phil” and “Chimera” could be called plant-like structures, if plants came in mirror-bright polished aluminum. Standing 51 inches tall, “Chimera” (named for the mythical monster made of disparate parts) is powered by a breeze from large fans mounted high in the corners of the gallery. To ensure that the sculpture’s crescent-shaped vanes are caught at varying angles in the air stream, a hidden electric motor turns the sculpture’s base in a continuous series of clockwise-counterclockwise rotations. The effect is of a silvery beanstalk whose leaves are brushed this way and that by a fickle breeze.

The beauty of Emery’s gleaming material and semi-organic forms are just as important to the appreciation of her sculpture as its fascinating motion. The same can be said for the work of Pedro S. de Movellán.

One of the showiest pieces in the exhibition is de Movellán’s “Core,” a wall-mounted sculpture. In it, four wedge-shaped arcs of metal, powder-coated black on one side and gilded on the other, are mounted so that each arc, from the largest to the smallest, spins around an empty spherical core. The sculpture is powered by weights that set a flywheel in motion.

Williams notes that de Movellán “has a designer’s eye for the combination of contrasting materials,” and his sculpture “Luminescence” is a case in point. It is composed of two finely crafted frameworks of cherry wood over which are stretched translucent Dacron scrims. In shape, these elements resemble cross-sections of the engine cowlings on a B-29 Superfortress. Powered by air currents, they swing slowly past one another in scissors fashion.

Moving air also powers Tim Prentice’s sculptures, shimmering curtains of polished aluminum and Lexan sheets suspended from stainless steel rods.

As a behind-the-scenes aside, Williams says that setting the angles of the fans to keep the air-driven sculptures in the show moving was no easy feat. He credits VBMA Preparator Matthew Mangold with fine-tuning the fans over the course of “three or four days” to tickle every sculpture in just the right way.

The sculptures of Anne Lilly, however, remain motionless until a touch by a white-gloved gallery guard or docent brings them to life.

Lilly took her undergraduate degree in architecture and, while her sculptures owe a debt to mathematics and engineering, she also wants to show “the softer side of the machine,” says Williams.

He cites the easy familiarity with which we humans interact with, say, our cars or our washing machines. In return for working for us with speed, consistency and accuracy, we give the machine a little bit of us, just by interacting with it.

“When you activate one of Lilly’s sculptures, that’s your energy that you have imparted to it,” says Williams. “When you watch one of her sculptures move, you are watching your own energy in the machine.”

In light of the human connection that she insists upon in her work, Lilly’s sculptures appear (at least, at rest) to be the most coldly mechanical works in the exhibition. Made primarily of stainless steel and composed of elementary shapes – circles, squares, grids, cubes – Lilly’s sculptures eschew organic form and sensuous materials. It is motion alone that truly animates her work, softening the unyielding, weaving the unpliable, and folding the unbendable.

To experience Lilly’s sculpture is to see its life cycle, from stationary object to energized one, through the slow decay of its motion to stationary object once again. Among the most deceptively simple of her works is “Van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem.” In it, a rotating stainless steel grid is pierced again and again by a rod that swings through its middle. The title of the sculpture pays tribute to a 17th century Dutch landscape by Jacob Van Ruisdael. That artist’s “View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds” shows a flat landscape whose foreground is striped with lengths of linen that have been laid on the ground to bleach in the sun. In the distance lies the city of Haarlem, where the spires of churches pierce again and again the broad cloudy sky above.

An educational display near the front of the exhibition features a couple of sculpture components provided by Anne Lilly that the public can examine and touch, as well as an easy-to-understand list of terms pertaining to the mechanics of kinetic sculpture. There is also an illustrated color brochure for the taking that includes a brief essay, artists’ biographies and a checklist of the exhibition.

“Kinetic Sculpture: The Poetics of Movement” will remain on view through Jan. 4, 2015.

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