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Ghosts in the Machines

The Sculpture/Contraptions of Andy Mezensky Don't Really Work--Except to Creep You Out

Double Digits: Andy Mezensky's "Sewing Machine" straddles the line between function and fantasy, man and machine.

By J. Bowers | Posted 1/28/2004

The Organic Machine

Andy Mezensky

Baltimore Public Works Museum through April 4

If you can picture the fantastic steampunk covers to Jules Verne's illustrated classics, Jacques de Vaucanson's 16th-century mechanical duck, or the post-industrial horror of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, you'll find yourself on very familiar ground with local sculptor Andy Mezensky's The Organic Machine, a collection of newish bronze on display at the Baltimore Public Works Museum.

Antique-looking, with glittering art deco flair, Mezensky's bronze, wood, and steel contraptions combine metal-shop know-how with the botched logic of a Victorian visionary. Exquisitely engineered brass cranks poke out of cavernous engine chambers. Pointed, steeplelike spires share space with toothy gears, perforated vents, and wax-cast bronze images of the artist's own fingers, lips, and nose. Mezensky's short, matter-of-fact titles, such as "Musical Chest Organ" and "Sewing Machine," seem downright modest, given the almost otherworldly nature of his improbable contraptions, which consistently straddle the line between function and fantasy, man and machine. Wandering through a collection of Mezensky's work is like stumbling upon an abandoned Victorian mechanical museum--a rare experience, mysterious, puzzling, and laden with unnerving, antiquated charm.

The Organic Machine gives viewers plenty of chances to explore the quirky methodology behind Mezensky's madness, by pairing finished bronze works with his original mechanical blueprints, sketched onto swatches of Bounty paper towel, cardboard notebook backings, and other improbable canvases--an informal catalog of the creative process. Freed of the inventor's responsibility to make machines that actually work, Mezensky can concentrate on creating pieces that simply look as though they could. His 2000 "Diving Helmet" could have been plucked from the pages of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with its ridged shoulder blades, windowpaned vents, and crested Spartan-like headdress, all burnished to an almost iridescent sheen. The helmet's ever so slightly cocked head imbues the piece with a believable sense of life, and a shiny, well-fitted oxygen-delivery system makes it seem as though it's actually meant to be worn. The accompanying "Diving Helmet Study--Air Intake," doodled on a floral paper towel, reinforces this idea, illustrating the mechanical logic behind the incised, flower-shaped panel and crankshaft that rest below the helmet's chin.

"Breastplate" possesses a similar iron-lung aesthetic, reprising "Diving Helmet"'s sinuous system of hollow bronze tubes. Of course, anyone attempting to wear Mezensky's gilded armor would end up with a crank housing at his or her back and a bronze imprint of the artist's slim nose and puckered mouth in the center of their chest. Mezensky revisits this facial motif throughout his work, blurring the line between body parts and machine parts by reducing his own body into detachable components, just as malleable and machinelike as his other materials. His nose and lips reappear in the center of "Balalaika," a wall-mounted piece that finds Mezensky exploring his Ukrainian heritage by modeling the traditional stringed instrument. Mezensky signs all of his works with Cyrillic script, a runic-looking affectation that adds to the machines' mysterious appeal. "Balalaika" gives viewers plenty of clues about its creation, however, with English and Cyrillic notes penciled all over its wooden body. In this case, the piece itself is more text-heavy than its accompanying study sketch. Two bronze-cast fingers and a thumb finish the composition, securing either side of the instrument's bridge, while Mezensky's nose simultaneously echoes and inverts the piece's triangular shape.

"Sewing Machine" also features organic elements, by way of the artist's fingers and thumbs. Mezensky's self-casts are so lifelike, his finished fingers seem like real appendages, dismembered and dipped in bronze, baby-shoe style. Positioned on either side of the machine's main housing, his metallic fingers reveal knuckle wrinkles and a chipped fingernail, human elements that give the machine's tightly wound needle housing a quaint, grandfatherly charm--even though it's ultimately unclear how, exactly, the whole thing is supposed to function. Interestingly, the accompanying "Sewing Machine Study" sketch takes the fingers out of the design, an abandoned choice that underlines their importance in the piece's final composition. "Radial Engine," a smaller, wall-mounted piece, also explores the mechanical potential of the human hand, as Mezensky mounts five fingers, seven spark plugs, and seven perforated hook attachments onto a round wooden plaque, creating a propellerlike composition that looks like it might spring off of the gallery wall.

Though all of Mezensky's pieces possess considerable potential energy, created through careful attention to fitting and believable proportions, it would be intriguing to see him add actual kinetic elements to his gleaming H.G. Wells-style machinery, particularly in the case of pieces like "Mechanical Face Stove." Completed in 2001, this medium-sized piece looks like it could have attacked the Beatles in Yellow Submarine, with its foot-shaped base supports, bronzed Mezensky nose and mouth, mustachio-shaped chin attachments, and empty, staring holes-as-eyes. Here, as in all of the pieces where they appear, the artist's puckered lips look as though they're about to expel a puff of steam, spout water, or take up the saxophone.

But nothing ever happens. Like the antique machinery on display in the educational gallery around the corner in the museum, these fantastic contraptions are perpetually dormant. But Mezensky's sculptures are too well-made to sit there, collecting dust--they look as though they might spring to life at any moment, grinding, stitching, and spewing smoke, as vital and utilitarian as any other machine in the Public Works Museum's historic collection. And that's a pretty impressive trick, especially when you consider the fact that none of these "organic machines" has any actual working parts.

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