New York

Jon Kessler

In the six months or so since I last saw several of Jon Kessler’s automated wall reliefs in a show at Artists Space, he appears to have gained even more confidence in the wacky sci-fi possibilities of his work. The pieces that initially caught my eye are Rube Goldberg, Swiss–cuckoo clock affairs: small motors move a variety of figures and odd detritus about behind pieces of translucent Plexiglas, the ensembles lighted from their backs to make a kind of shadowbox narrative. But with those contraptions the animated drama cast on the Plexiglas is matched, sometimes overcome, by the furiously active, jerry-built inner workings, which are open and available for inspection from both sides. Small patches of model-train-like Utopia, the works revive the corpse of kinetic sculpture with considerable élan. Kessler’s materials have a found-on-Canal-Street grittiness to them, so that the finished wholes represent conglomerate objets trouvés, albeit predestined ones.

The oriental cast of some of the components Kessler has been coming up with on his downtown shopping forays seems to have prompted the Chinese characters on the faces of two of these new pieces, spelling out their titles, The Secret Storm and As the World Turns. All six pieces here (all 1983) take their names from daytime soap operas, perhaps to ameliorate the implied violence and harsh tonalities of the evolved shadowboxes. Only one, Days of Our Lives, admits the revealing side views of its motorized and orchestrated contents familiar to those who know the earlier work. In the other pieces the viewer lacks visual access to the lilliputian factories creating the backlighted imagery, and the imagery itself assumes greater formal importance in the overall meaning of each piece, mostly to good effect. Behind the corrugated fiberglass shield of The Secret Storm a landscape of power-line pylons is suddenly overpowered, through the use of timed motor devices, by a giant shadow figure with an upraised hatchet. This sequence is superseded by an even more grandiose figure holding a stone overhead, then by a smaller figure segueing into a flash of sustained strobe lights.

Guiding Light, at over 6 feet high, was by far the largest work shown. A rectangular plane of corrugated fiberglass leaning into a corner includes three levels of activity going on and off behind it at varying intervals. Different hues of lights, one beam chopped into by an oscillating fan, alter spatial perceptions around a rapidly revolving group of three ferocious-looking toy figures—an apocalypse of whirling dervishes. The two remaining pieces, Search for Tomorrow and Another World, further extend Kessler’s enclosed sculptural reliefs. In the former, six translucent and pearlescent globes are stacked atop one another and askew. A small white encephaloid figure sits at the top plunging a stick and string into a small hole, fishing for the future. The large wall-bound Another World hangs above head height, a wire mesh half-sphere covered with fat flesh-colored worms of foam insulation. Chunks of colored and clear Plexiglas are studded throughout the tangled skein of tissues, a flashing light from behind illuminating the giant brain surrogate.