San Francisco

San Francisco

San Francisco

The Vorpal Galleries provided an interesting selection of entertaining mobile assemblages and ingenious junk-sculptural machines by Robert Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert’s largest and most elaborate pieces are in a comical vein, in which his basic procedure is to construct a large supportive frame or armature from such choice junkyard finds as oddly shaped sections of antique cast iron grillwork. From these he suspends elaborate Rube Goldberg networks of moving parts, in which ludicrously extensive relays of cogwheels, rotor-belts, elbow pivots and the like terminate in some such trivial function as the tripping of a crude spring-hammer device to produce a dull “plink” on an old bell.

Gilbert often combines a number of such complexes of comic mechanical events as branch relays within a single “antic Mechanism,” usually activated by a simple electrically powered rotor, operated by the spectator from a pedal switch on the gallery floor. Of the exhibits exemplifying these procedures, Jefferson Airplane, a large construction which was suspended from the gallery ceiling, suggests in overall shape a gigantic winged fish with a pinwheel in its nose, and was obviously inspired by a famous early poster for the rock band of the same name. The Groper, in which the placement and shape of a fragment of cast iron arabesque alludes to a plumed horse’s head in profile, is a humorously grotesque fairy-tale coach fantasy mounted on carriage wheels. Among the various kinetic systems incorporated into the latter caprice were a cymbal-like metal disc thrust by a rod through a metal hoop with which it collided to produce a thin “clink,” and (the feature which no doubt gave rise to this exhibit’s title) a pair of mechanical elbows working on pivots from a wheel and terminating in talon-like robot hands clamping castanets and pawing the air in dog-paddle strokes.

All this kinetic buffoonery and caricature of the Machine through elaborately engineered gadgetry with trivial and slapstick functions relates these devices conceptually to the comic machines of Tinguely, but their style, however, is another matter: a decoratively symmetrical balancing of volumes and a picturesque predominance of circus-poster colors and Victorian ornament tend to impart to them an overall disposition akin to the Gay Nineties Cable Car Rococo of tourist-oriented “San Francisco camp” in Union Square shop window displays.

Gilbert attempts a more serious vein in an almost monolithically simple junk-sculptural mannequin in which the stable elements are an old wooden leg and an iron upright surmounted with a police helmet, while its mobile system consists of a large black wheel mounted on the upright and driving, by its rotation, two pairs of elbow-pivoted, arm-like metal bars brandishing respectively a billy club and a revolver in ponderous, menacing arcs. Although the piece was described as alluding to a Los Angeles incident of police brutality to politically demonstrating “Flower Children,” the large, metal sunflower form bobbing up and down under the swinging weapons seemed a superfluously literal touch of anecdotal charade which detracted from the potential effectiveness of the work. Indeed, the ease with which hieroglyphically figurative and anecdotal kinetic sculpture—or any intentionally slapstick kinetic sculpture even when relatively abstract—may degenerate into cuteness and camp is a pitfall which Gilbert’s work seldom escapes, in spite of his basically sound sculptural sensibilities, interesting ideas and intriguing mechanical ingenuity.

Optically dynamic hard edge painting, as explored by Mary Henry in her On/Off series of paired variations on color-band motifs, constituted an impressive display of large canvases at the Arleigh Gallery. Each mode of each of the bimodally expounded color-band discs which make up the binary variation units of this set of variations is centered in a white field on a 5-foot-square canvas. Some of the paired discs are vertically striated while others explore a concentric ring or “target” pattern. Paired discs are usually schematically identical, differing only in some singular and relatively unspectacular element or function. There is no attempt to create even a charade for any such opposing polarities of a binary conceptual axis as is suggested by the On/Off caption. One disc does not, for example, directionally reverse the color-band sequence of its mate, nor are there here any Yin/Yang games with black and white or with positive/negative figure-ground polarities or warm/cool color contrasts. Nothing so obvious as an exercise in contrasts was projected, but rather was there an ingenious and provocative’ dialogue of syntactical rhythms, phrase and paraphrase and subtle metrical shifts in these juxtapositions. Miss Henry, who has been awarded architectural commissions and is a graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts, reveals experienced sensibilities and a possible indebtedness to the visual dynamology of Moholy-Nagy in these simple and striking geometric color studies.

Spatial optics and space-extending architectural illusionism, together with incorporating spectator and environment into the art work by means of mirrors and variously modulated, image-distorting reflective surfaces, are among the more interesting concerns of Gary Allen, whose exhibition entitled “Floating” at the Arlene Lind Gallery consisted of a large number of essentially box-like wall constructions utilizing an “exterior” surface panel juxtaposed over an “interior,” or backing panel to which it is braced with bolts and rods to allow for a shallow recess of “interior” space. Various metals and plastics were used in these constructions, as well as a considerable range of shapes and textured surfaces. Preoccupation, however, was with technical resources and their potentialities for flashy novelty, underscored by a spectrum of the more spangly, glittering textures and slick, pinkish-pearl opalescences of plastic media. Some of the smaller exhibits looked like the exteriors of rather garish Art Deco bathroom medicine cabinets, while others, experimenting with stencil perforations of the “surface-panel” aligned with reflecting discs mounted on the “backing panel,” explored a Halloween-pumpkin repertoire of such cute figurative allusions as comic cat-faces and the like. Mr. Allen’s gallery resumé placard included an item: “Two years, Walt Disney, as artist, set designer, model-maker.”

Palmer D. French