Welding 'Junk' Into Humorous Flights Of Fancy

FEW people value a rusty old oil burner or a 1940s exercise bike as much as Steve Gerberich.

Every Memorial Day weekend, Gerberich makes a journey from New York to his home state of Iowa to fill up a few trucks of stuff (don't call it ''junk,'' please) at the largest scrap-iron convention in the country.

Back in his studio, he might transform an old drill press, rusted movie reels, oars, a fly swatter, and a hog feeder into an imaginative moving sculpture. And quite likely, the work would ''run'' in a store window, train station, or other publicly accessible place.

Gerberich has a knack for pairing nostalgia with creative, kinetic humor. He breathes life into castoffs and welds them with whimsy. At times his works seem like three-dimensional cartoons.

Take the ''Gerberich Grand Orchestra,'' for example. A choir of ''kettle-heads'' nods to passersby from Broadway Windows, a window gallery run by New York University. It is the kind of storefront delight that makes people stop and look in this high-speed city. Each kettle-head is made from a teapot and other utensils, and each has a distinct personality. As a group, they bob with emotion -- much like a gospel choir.

Technically speaking, electric pulleys and motors bring the old objects to life. Near the choir are a few life-size musicians: a strumming guitarist, a fiddling violinist, an accordion player squeezing away, and a trombonist who slides back and forth. Gerberich's ''Grand Orchestra'' is a tribute to his grandfather Lyman Stuey Gerberich, who was the conductor of the first symphony orchestra in Des Moines.

While many artists specialize in creating art from found objects, Gerberich has carved out a niche for himself as an Iowa native who favors old derelict farm-machinery mechanisms -- pump jacks, outdated drill presses, and other gadgets. ''I kind of pay homage to the piece and give it a new life and a new meaning,'' Gerberich says.

More Gerberich installations grace the main waiting room at Grand Central Station (through mid-April). ''Cash Cow'' is a simple machine that is a comment on automation and money. Here the viewer sees an old exercise bike, cutouts of cow heads, milk bottles, corn, Slinkies, motors, pulleys, and more. Udders go up and down, splashing imaginary milk into oldtime milk jars filled with money.

It was a breakthrough piece in terms of technology, Gerberich explains. ''I realized an exercise bike is a ready-made mechanism.''

Gerberich's mechanical dexterity is self-taught; in fact, he is known to frequently upgrade and modify his works. He started tinkering with found objects in the early 1980s while getting his BA in Fine Arts at the University of Northern Iowa. While growing up in Waukee, Iowa, he was influenced by his dad, a master carpenter, and his brother, an artist.

When he moved to New York 10 years ago, he first took construction and photo-assisting jobs to pay the bills.

Then, he got the OK to install a sculpture in the window of a vacant printing-company building on Broome Street in SoHo. That window set a precedent for the placement of future works. One Christmas season, he exhibited in Bloomingdales' windows -- quite a coup in terms of public exposure.

''I love the philosophy of a window. It does not discriminate. It doesn't have business hours, and it's publicly accessible,'' Gerberich says. ''Instead of showing some retail items for sale, what I'm showing in window installation is reinvention of ideas.''

A common understanding in his works is humor, Gerberich says. People smile and often laugh when they see his works in motion.

It's not as difficult to achieve as one might think, he says. ''Once you motorize something, once you have it moving, it's much more humorous than if it is static. Think about it: If you took any common object, any household utensil, and put it in a repetitious movement in an environment, it would probably be humorous.''

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