Mechanics laid bare for thought

Kinetic sculptures of small moments stir nostalgia, contemplation, humor

A detail from Jonathan Schipper’s glass, steel, and electronics work “Measuring Angst’’ at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University in Providence.

In an era of microchips, we don’t see much of the technology that powers our tools. Does that invisibility create nostalgia for the days of manual typewriters - days when life was less virtual and more anchored in the body? “Nostalgia Machines,’’ a kinetic sculpture exhibit at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, banks on it.

The group show, put together by former gallery curator Maya Allison, spotlights art in which the mechanics are laid bare, often to theatrical effect. But the machinations themselves only peripherally stir nostalgia. The work is slyer and more sophisticated than that. These artists use metaphor, exaggeration, pace, and the senses to steer their sculptures toward a sweet spot where sentiment, humor, and contemplativeness meet.

Zimoun, a sound and installation artist based in Switzerland, has a quite simple piece in the first gallery: “150 prepared dc-motors, filler wire 1.0 mm.’’ He has mounted the tiny motors side by side, and attached a wire to each. The motors spin, and the wires beneath them shimmy and slap against the wall. It sounds like a drenching rainstorm - a trigger for associations of threat and cozy shelter.


At 2:30 every afternoon, Jonathan Schipper’s gargantuan installation “Measuring Angst’’ kicks into gear. Spotlights flood an empty Corona bottle attached to a U-shaped armature mounted to runners along the ceiling. The bottle rotates through the air at the speed of a tortoise, appears to smash into the wall, and breaks into pieces. Then the scene rewinds: The shards fit back together - redemption! - as the bottle flies backward. It’s as if all this heavy machinery has enabled recovery from irreparable loss.

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Like Schipper’s, Gregory Witt’s work focuses on small, throwaway moments - taping up a parcel, flipping a switch - and imbues them with new meaning. For “Light Switch,’’ he has mounted a video monitor in a plywood frame attached to gears. On the monitor, a machine turns a switch on and off. The frame tilts up and down, mimicking the motion and angle of the switch. All the extra apparatus is comical, but it reminds us of the pressure of the switch under a finger, and the moment the electric current connects.

The other works are less captivating. Meredith Pingree’s motion-activated pieces perhaps required more than one or two people in the gallery to set them substantially moving. Jasper Rigole’s “OUTNUMBERED, a brief history of imposture,’’ which at first presents itself as a documentary, borrows a Ken Burns device, as a camera pans an old photograph. Step behind the curtain, so to speak, and we see the camera and the photograph, and are told that the narration about each figure is complete fiction.

The piece is about the illusions of memory and storytelling. It first evokes nostalgia, then snatches it away. In a show that often masterfully uses technology to go for the gut, it’s too heady.

Kathy Kissik’s mixed-media work “London.’’

Photos with powers

Nostalgia is a powerful component in Kathy Kissik’s mixed-media collages at Alpha Gallery. Kissik starts with photographs she takes herself, but she manipulates them so they appear old. The effect, ultimately, is dreamlike and fractured.


“London,’’ for instance, features a sepia-toned view of Regent Street. But even the photo is a collage: The buildings slant and buckle into one another, all shot from different points of view. The street itself is a rush into one-point perspective, with ribbons of metal and red paint streaming toward the center like a mad river, as if time’s onslaught is throwing a quaint picture of the past into disarray.

Kissik made “She Loves Her Horse’’ on what looks like a slatted wooden blind. It depicts a photo of a woman on a horse, but the horse has been extended at the midriff, with paint and leather, like part of a saddle. The realism of the materials pulls us deeper into the dream.

Deft, detailed, apocalyptic

Sean Downey’s painting “For Every Field There’s a Mole.’’

LaMontagne Gallery has a show of four young Boston artists: Corey Corcoran, Paul Endres Jr., Sean Downey, and Kris Mortensen. All are deft painters. Corcoran’s thematic approach, in which he blends human forms with nature scenes, is trite, but his technique carries the work. In “Swarm Behavior,’’ three figures recline. One comprises wasps, the next plants, the last earth, tunnels, and ants. Each is so detailed you want to sink into it.

Downey makes layered frontier narratives that imply a connection between painting and pioneer life. “For Every Field There’s a Mole’’ shows a forest littered with canvases, with two gray men collapsed along the ground and one painting at the edge. Striped with trees, it’s an unsentimental, almost abstracted scene of creation and destruction.

Endres flirts with apocalypse in his ongoing series of crisp, realist paintings that take place in the near future after a fictional disaster. “Mr. and Mrs. Daedalus’’ shows a defiant survivalist couple at home. She holds a chainsaw in her lap.


Mortensen’s Gothic, sickly green hospital scene, “Project 2010: Neuroscience and Ethics Searching for Consciousness,’’ shares that horror about the future. A forbidding nurse sits beside a pig splayed on an operating table. It’s a gorgeous painting that crystallizes disturbing images, then drops back into a blur.


At: David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, through Feb. 19. 401-863-2932,


At: Alpha Gallery, 37 Newbury St., through Feb. 29. 617-536-4465,


At: LaMontagne Gallery, 555 East Second St., South Boston, through Feb. 25. 617-482-8400,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at