Train wrecks really get your attention, even sculptural ones. Imagine a ton of steel hurtling with out-of-control force, lurching off the tracks, coming right for you. Massive “Old King Cole” makes quite a first impression as you open the doors to the Clifford Art Gallery for Jonathan Kirk’s exhibit Machines: Fragments & Reveries.
A string of railroad associations came to mind—the saga of the golden spike, song lyrics from the Magnetic Fields, whistles heard behind prison walls, zipper-like rail lines ripping our land open and sealing it neatly back together, a crash in Montparnasse, the Polar Express, cutesy, anthropomorphized engines like the denizens of Chuggington—before I noticed that the rear wheels of “Old King Cole” are sharply ridged, more suited for open ground than for gliding on tracks.
The sculpture isn’t even a train, but an obscure and obsolete steam-powered farming implement called a traction engine (remember poor odd-man-out Trevor from the Island of Sodor?). Slow, heavy, awkward and lodged pretty deep in the scrapheap of history, traction engines suggest somewhat different associations.
There was a time when the traction engine was one of many steam age wonders. Human ingenuity and inventions promised to free humanity from drudgery and usher in an egalitarian golden era. Futurist artists celebrated the beauty and efficiency of machines with clean lines, geometric perfection, meshing gears and whirring activity. This exultant spirit is hard to recapture or even remember as we look back through a plague of pollution, the scourge of sweatshops, and a few world wars made much worse by mechanization. Kirk still sees something precious there and wants us to appreciate it too.
Many of the pieces in the show are maquettes or models for larger works. All explore aspects of idealized machines. “Ashes to Ashes” is another overturned traction engine, this one with its front wheels in the air and twisting or flagging as it melts back down into geometric slag. In “Chains for the Great Eastern,” links of descending size seem foreshortened as they spill into a big black spoon. A chitinous arch slopes toward a bulbous furnace in the “Burning Chamber.” Any ugly purpose or workaday context has been removed, so only the elegant forms remain.
Some pieces refer to the inventor’s impulse to appropriate or improve upon organic shapes. In “Argonaut” a nautilus shape is sometimes smoothly solid and sometimes a schematic wireframe, overlapping nature’s beauty with the analytic purity of engineering. “Winged Gudgeon” is smooth as a gourd and ribbed like a ship’s hull and is also clearly meant to mesh with other parts.
One long table holds a multitude of small, unfinished shapes, perhaps the sculptural equivalent of sketches. Heaped together in no particular order are stairwells, flywheels, bowls, bulbs, hoops, headstocks, handles, portholes, propellers and so forth. The forms are painstakingly built up from small chips of board, glued together, sanded smooth, reworked.
This display of experiments gives insight into a rigorous process. It is here that it is easiest to see the connection between the irrepressible creative urge that brings forth art and the act of invention which gives rise to the mundane machines which shape our lives.Jonathan Kirk’s Machines: Fragments & Reveries runs through Feb. 1 at the Clifford Art Gallery, 101 Little Hall, Colgate University, Hamilton. Open Mondays through Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call 228-7633 or visit cliffordgallery.org.