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Machine Biology

New Show Collapses The Differences Separating Humans From Their Creations

VROOM VROOM: Andrew Verhoeckx's "Valve Cover."

By J. Bowers | Posted 3/7/2007

A promising series of changes has occurred at Locust Point's Gallery Imperato over the past few months. Cheri Landry is the new curator. The carpet has been stripped off the floors. The gallery stops its bizarre and schizophrenic tendency to scatter work throughout the offices that adjoin the main gallery space. And the gallery rebooted its mission statement in an attempt to bring in more work by national and international contemporary artists.

Judging by its current offering, Man-Made, a three-artist show featuring works that deal with architecture and industry, the changes are welcome. An intriguing balance of paintings, photography, and sculpture, Man-Made is the first true destination show that Imperato has presented in some time.

The outer walls of the gallery are dominated by Canadian painter Andrew Verhoeckx's über-glossy large-scale oil works. An ardent car enthusiast, Verhoeckx elevates the inner workings of classic automobiles to the level of fine art by painting extreme closeups of transformers, wiring, engine parts, and other car innards. Wires and cables become pulsing arteries, and slabs of metal become cartilaginous plates and ligaments, underlying the weirdly human aspects of one of our most common machines.

Verhoeckx's style is so realistic that the canvases look like photographs from afar, particularly thanks to his tendency to render foregrounds just slightly out-of-focus. Works like the sublime "Valve Cover" appear almost three-dimensional, thanks to judicious use of foreshortening and highlights. Like a form of futuristic impressionism, the images are overwhelming and indiscernible up close but resolve into recognizable systems as you back away from the canvases. You'd expect a series of paintings focused on car parts to be a dull parade of endless black and gray, but Verhoeckx is adept at finding the beauty in his beloved vehicles. "Mirror Wires," a work created with the softening addition of an airbrush, is a surprisingly attractive tangle of orange, blue, and green cables. It almost makes you want to open up your own car's hood to check out what's really in there.

Photographer J.M. Giordano's bleak images of architectural and capitalist decay provide a fitting counterpoint to Verhoeckx's photorealistic oils. "Stainless," a series of four digital Lambda prints elegantly mounted on the four sides of Imperato's central brick smokestack, documents the November 2004 closing of the Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel mill. The remains of the mills, once a thriving industrial center responsible for the girders that support hundreds of skyscrapers around the country, are hollow shells of what they once were. Giordano has a documentarian's eye for detail--devoid of human life, and shot through with stark contrasts of light and shadow, his photographs reveal what remains whenever a scion of America's beloved factory culture meets its inevitable collapse. "Mill No. 1" is particularly striking, as diagonal shafts of light contrast with a pair of steel tracks that disappear into the distance of a large factory room.

But the real star of Man-Made is up-and-coming self-taught sculptor Chris Bathgate, who precisely machines aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, and steel to create what he calls "entities." These tiny widgetlike sculptures possess an oddly human quality, despite their perfectly smooth, unbelievably shiny surfaces, which obliterate any sign of an artist at work. Largely based on geometric forms, his little sculptures resemble Star Wars set pieces or sci-fi robots from the 1950s. A Baltimore native, Bathgate has spent the last several years training himself to use a cadre of metalworking machines in his basement studio, allowing a combination of technology and imagination to dictate the final form of each piece. Despite impersonal titles such as "FL582213732613431" and "Vn351151," Bathgate's futuristic creations look as though they could come to life at any moment and begin carrying out mysterious, unseen tasks within their glittering carapaces. His skills as an engineer, welder, and metalworker are staggering, and his works are shown off to great advantage on freestanding pedestals arranged in clumps throughout the gallery, allowing you to examine each object from all sides.

Bathgate's one misstep--if it can be called that--is "CF452200632582," the sole wall-mounted work he exhibits here. Resembling a wall sconce from the Starship Enterprise, it's woefully easy to miss, hanging between two of the offices that surround the gallery space. What's more, this wall-mounted work lacks the charming, standalone quality of his other works. Whereas the others feel like self-contained machines in their own right, "CF452200632582" feels like a misplaced piece of something larger, or a spare part.

According to curator Landry, Bathgate is beginning to incorporate computers into his creative process, writing complex stretches of code that will tell his machines precisely how to cut and shape his metal mediums. Of the works on offer here, "Gr432251," a shiny, moleculelike structure of aluminum and brass, is the only one produced in this fashion--but the idea that Bathgate would, theoretically, be able to mass-produce his "machines" is an intriguing one.

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