Sculpture That Speaks When Set in Motion

Arthur Ganson's machines express his views, ranging from pure pun to positively profound

`I STARTED by smiling - I ended by giggling," is scribbled in the white comment book placed at the gallery's entrance.

Other viewers of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park's exhibition of Arthur Ganson's whimsical, kinetic "machines," responded similarly: "You must be great at a party," jotted one. "Your sculptures are like dancers, it would be wonderful to see them perform," penned another. One of the most concise comments takes up a half page and in a wobbly scrawl resembling that of a child simply says, "WOW."

For 15 years, this Somerville, Mass.-based artist has designed multimedia machines that whirr, flicker, squeak, churn, shake, twist, pour, gyrate, and even "breathe." But their ability to move in a mechanical sense is only part of the striking ingenuity of Ganson's art; it's the kooky, inventive way in which these sculptures communicate and how they move the spirit of everyone from tots to technicians that makes them so effective.

Ganson's works speak to viewers on many levels, not the least of which is humor.

"Humor is usually a byproduct of the process," he said in a recent interview, explaining that it strikes people as funny to think of machines in a human context.

Among those that most tickle the funny-bone is "Machine with Wishbone." It involves an actual chicken wishbone imitating a human walk as it trudges along a plank, alternating sides, with the help of a motor. As with many of Ganson's works, a deeper message can be traced from the delightful absurdity - in this case, the wishbone represents human struggle.

While Ganson admits to being a punster, and a handful of his older works fall into the "one-liner" category, he considers his most profound machines to be an outgrowth of his more philosophical side. He aims to express his views through his craft, but he encourages viewers to arrive at their own interpretations.

"Whenever I meet kids in the gallery, the first thing I tell them is `whatever you feel about these pieces, that's correct,' " he says, adding, "We're often taught in the realm of art history that this means that and that means this .... I'm inclined to think a lot of it is hogwash." He defines his best pieces as those that are "the most ambiguous but not floating out there in space," explaining that much of abstract art bores him because "it doesn't say enough."

Ranking high on Ganson's list of his own favorite works is "Machine with Chair," which he feels successfully balances its abstract form with its meaning. But, to Ganson, meaning doesn't always equate with an intellectual statement.

In the case of "Machine with Chair," this most flamboyant and captivating piece in Ganson's display at the DeCordova in Lincoln, Mass. represents, according to the artist, a Spanish dance. The behemoth-like steel contraption, which slowly and continuously travels side to side on a 24-foot track, pausing midway to lift and swirl a wooden chair high into the air before gently placing it back into its original position. Ganson's initial vision of the work included full-scale dramatics: curtains, lights, and

flamenco guitar music. He's content with its less theatrical display here, however, and laughs at the sheer absurdity of the concept.

This sense of absurdity is pivotal to Ganson's art; it is what attracted him to the work of Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely soon after Ganson made the leap from studying pre-med to fine art at the University of New Hampshire in the late 1970s. "I was excited by the freedom with which he explored the impossible interpretations of the machine," he says, adding that Tinguely "played around a lot with humor and chaos, before using the term `chaos' was current."

Among other influences are Alexander Calder ("I began experimenting with wire as a result of his sculptures"), Paul Klee, for his "playfulness and whimsicality," and his close friend and fellow sculptor Tim Prentice, whose process of crafting enormous yet delicate mobiles he finds engaging.

However, these artists' effect on him is only "peripheral," he says, as his work has primarily evolved from his personal point of view and his awe for the beauty of movement and gesture, which is vital "because it communicates so much in terms of attitude.

Surprisingly, Ganson had no formal training in mechanics or engineering before launching his career as an artist; his savvy for building machines that actually work - ranging from hand-cranked, delicate wire forms to motorized, colossal steel structures - is soley intuitive.

Much tinkering and jiggering is required, however, before Ganson can set his works in motion.

These technical steps are what Ganson calls the "adult side" of his work. "The whole process is the marriage of the child and the adult," he says.

When does the child enter the picture? According to Ganson, it's in the intuitive stage, at the point when he is exploring - without constraints - wildly creative forms.

"There has to be some level of wonderment in every piece," says Ganson, who repeatedly calls the process of arriving at this key ingredient, "the joy of discovery."

* `Arthur Ganson: Diverse Machinery' continues at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass., through Jan. 31.

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