Machines of Loving Grace
Who's in charge here?
by Stephanie Douglass
"I like to think / (right now, please!) / of a cybernetic forest / filled with pines and electronics," wrote the late American poet and writer Richard Brautigan, imagining a utopian future "where deer stroll peacefully / past computers / as if they were flowers." The poem, "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," is an orderly, naively wishful, and claustrophobic lyric that envisions a harmonious existence presided over by machines. While machines' dominion in our daily lives is still debatable, they openly rule the exhibit Machines of Loving Grace at LePop Gallery (a traveling "pop-up" gallery that uses empty commercial spaces, currently the former MyBuys space on Main Street).
Dazzlingly prominent throughout the exhibit is Ypsilanti-based artist Cre Fuller's fantastic array of tabletop lamps shaped like robot heads. Part of his "Tin Angry Men" collection, each robot possesses distinct facial features made up of repurposed metal parts, including coffee pots, cooking accoutrements, springs, and other odds and ends, with colored light bulbs for eyes. As Fuller's title suggests, they are a sullen bunch. One grim robot (each is named Untitled, to its detriment, I think, given their unique identities) resembles a demonic skull, with bared teeth, nasal cavity, large eye sockets, and two gleaming horns.
Another impressively crafted anthropomorphized sculpture made of found and reclaimed metal is sculptor Rick Cronn's Ur Videohead, a six-foot-ten humanoid standing on a wheeled base and fashioned from chicken wire, hammock and tent poles, and blue LED rope lights. Where we would expect a face, there is instead a portable video player and, in the back of the skull, a mounted speaker. While Ur Videohead is no Terminator, its height, skeletal appearance, and Cyclopean video screen make it a tad bit intimidating, a feeling heightened by one brief video clip of an eyeball being slit open with a scalpel.
The exhibit features many other fanciful works by Michigan artists, each possessing obvious skill and imagination. RoboTodd's High Five 4000 is a mechanical
and electric apparatus that offers a series of high fives from a flesh-toned rubber hand when you step on an accompanying foot pedal. Stephen Kade's vivid and detailed illustrations depict fairy-tale creatures and sentient toys, including a homicidal-looking monkey holding cymbals on either side of Earth. Melvin McGee's paintings also portray mythical beings in a colorful cartoon style--his painting Sasquatch Gets a Heart shows the great hairy beast strapped down in a field and surrounded by blue aliens. Unfortunately, these two illustrators' overlapping styles soon felt redundant, and I grew tired of so much whimsy.
Others, however, couldn't get enough. I couldn't help but notice a man lifting up a young, smiling girl, his daughter, to receive a high five, and then another, and another.
The exhibit runs through April 3.
[Originally published in April, 2012.]