Anticipation

Jeff has a piece that you may not have heard of before. It’s called Anticipation, and it’s pretty different from his other work. The first time I saw it, I kinda freaked out. Watch this video and you’ll see why:

Unlike Jeff’s other sculptures which run on their own once the motor gets started, Anticipation requires the complete involvement of an interested human. The crank must be turned for the hammer to move at all. The interactive nature of the sculpture makes it seem more game than art at first, but the range of feelings the machine generates as the wheel turns and the hammer rises are genuine and very intentional.

Even more unlike Jeff’s other works is the presence of an actual name attached to the sculpture. Last week, I spent almost a whole blog post exclaiming over the fact that Jeff numbers but doesn’t name his work. He leaves his sculptures free of leading information so that his viewers can draw their own conclusions about what they seeing. Why does  Anticipation need a name, then? What is he trying to get us to see?

When Jeff gave his TEDx talk in Westlake, TX, he talked about the alternate realities or “reality bubbles” that surround each of us and are made up of the stuff of our lives. He talked about how his reality as an artist with a background in a solid family differs from that of, say, his adopted daughter Kaila, who came into the Zachmann home from a background of neglect. She still deals with the truths of her early reality every day, but her bubble has expanded to include the structure of a loving family and the joys and despairs of growing up in today’s world. Like each of us, her reality is relatively unknowable to anyone outside her personal bubble (which is, well, everyone). Her actions, however, offer an outsider a glimpse into her reality.

Jeffrey Zachmann Sculpture #710

Jeffrey Zachmann Sculpture #710

As an artist, Jeff has a more concrete way to offer glimpses into his reality: his work.
His love of movement and his fascination with machines can be traced back to his childhood, and as we’ve learned along the way, his art is also informed by his father’s practicality and the inventive necessities of farm life. His sculptures normally offer a deliberately open-ended view into his reality so that his creative energy can be easily assimilated into another person’s reality, but in this way Anticipation is different. It’s his grown-up sister trap; it’s artistic creation with the end goal being full participation in his reality. Rather than scaring unwanted siblings out of his bedroom (the sister trap’s ostensible purpose), Jeff is giving the person cranking the wheel and winding up the hammer the ability to feel the anticipation he feels when creating his kinetic sculptures. Something is coming, something will happen, and it will happen because the person turning the handle will make it so. There is a time when the hammer slowly crawls along upside down, nowhere near the nail that is still buried deep in the wood base from the last cycle of the sculpture, where excitement may wane and frustration may take over. When will it work? How long do I have to crank this thing? Suddenly, the nail pops up of its own accord and the hammer is no longer upside-down. All that remains is for the wheel to turn just enough for the hammer to swing and drive the nail back into the wood. It crashes down, and the motion is complete. It’s exhilarating and noisy and so cool because you’ve made something happen just by turning a wheel. Those emotions, that frustration and that excitement, are what Jeff wants to share directly. He’s not just giving you a glimpse into his reality, but the option to be fully immersed in it for a minute.

Just wait ’til he finishes his version of Anticipation made with a 10 pound sledgehammer. You’ll really feel it then.

Anticipation is for sale for $2,500 and will be at Red Dot December 3rd through December 8th!

 

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Don’t Bore Me.

Jeff and Carl are in Pennsylvania this week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, an exciting show filled with lots of amazing artists. They’ve been enjoying life Philly-style and are looking forward to a great rest of the week! Be sure to check Facebook for updates from the show.

Sampling the local fare in Philly.

Sampling the local fare in Philly.

 

While they’ve been away, I did some work that involved me sending off an artist statement to a firm interested in Jeff’s sculptures. While I was putting together the things they needed, I got to thinking about artist statements. I know what you are thinking; it is an exciting life I lead. Anyway, for those unfamiliar with an artist statement, it is a short piece of written work that the artist puts together to describe his/her art. As an example, here’s a short one that Jeff has on the homepage of his website:

The short intro to Jeff's work found on zachmann.com.

The short intro to Jeff’s work found on zachmann.com.

 

One thing I’ve never really understood is why artist statements are so ubiquitous. First of all, I’ve never met an artist who enjoyed writing them. Second of all, a lot of art that has an accompanying artist statement is visual art. Why does something visual need words to accompany it? Can’t you just look at the art?

I guess there is much to be said for contextualizing a piece of art. One certainly does feel more connected to a piece when one knows something about the artist’s process, interests, influences, and motivations. I’ve grown more and more interested in Jeff’s recent work the more I’ve learn about how much his childhood is influencing his artistic style. It’s fascinating to learn about his motivation to create things using found materials because they connect him personally to an earlier time and place. I appreciate having these insights because it enhances my experience with his art while still allowing me to view his work on my own terms and through my own lens.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of artist statements that don’t simply contextualize the work they accompany. The artist has accidentally overwritten their statement, and suddenly a piece of art that should speak for itself is forced to take on meaning that is larger than life. When Jeff and I were in Grand Rapids at ArtPrize, we saw a sculpture that I immediately hated (I make my judgements fast, people). It was a naked baby doll propped upright in a glass display case. The baby had one of its arms and one of its legs sawed off and replaced with robotic-looking limbs that hovered an inch or so away from the body. The whole thing was macabre in a very juvenile sort of way, but for me the worst part was the artist’s statement. Here is a sculpture that leaves very little to the imagination already but that is supplemented by a statement claiming it is opening my eyes to children’s dependence on technology. It does not discuss the artist’s inspiration or choice of materials. It does not place the work in any sort of historical artistic context. It simply explains what it means. I as a viewer have had to do no work, and I am no better off having seen that sculpture than not having seen it.

Perhaps you are wondering what is so wrong about an artist wanting his viewers to see exactly what he sees in his work. I respond that there is nothing necessarily wrong with it; it is their art and they may do what they like, except that it is boring me. Part of the joy in looking at art is discovering one’s own feelings along the way.

"Artist Statement (No One Here Gets Out Alive)"

William Powhida, “Artists Statement (No One Here Gets Out Alive)” (2009), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 18″x15″ (Image courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery)

 

One of my best friends from college is an artist named Anda Tanaka, and I like the way she thinks about artist statements. I remember watching her get ready for her art shows when we were still in school. For her, one of the most stressful parts of putting together a show (I mean, besides doing the actual artwork, getting the venue ready, and doing all the rest of her schoolwork) was writing the artist statement. She could sit for ages trying to come up with the words to adequately contextualize her work. I always liked her statements, as once they were finished they were very clearly written pieces that matched her determined personality (plus she always wrote them out by hand on beautiful paper, so they ended up being small works of art themselves). When she did pieces that were deliberately done in a certain style, her viewers were always treated to a succinct explanation of the historical context of her work. But when her work was less obviously rooted in history, she definitely struggled. “It’s like, you know how I play the trumpet? [Anda is also a very accomplished jazz trumpeter, no big deal] Well, after I’ve improvised, people will be like, Wow! How did you come up with that? Was it based on something?, and I have to say no, because, it’s not… I’m improvising. Art is like that. Sometimes you’re just improvising.” Indeed, as Iris Jaffe explains in The Anti-artist-statement Statement, “for a fine artist to be entirely aware of his or her creative process and the resulting artwork thereby created is a nearly impossible feat- and one that would require essentially super-human levels of self-awareness and analytical ability on the artist’s part.” Anda, like so many artists, doesn’t want to have to trivialize her work through the over-generalization of a complex and beautiful artistic process. She also doesn’t want to over-analyze her own work for the perceived benefit of other people, because in the end there is no real benefit to dumbing down art for a viewer. “My art is often about myself. It’s personal, like a self-portrait or a self-analysis. But I don’t want what I’m thinking to influence the people who see my work. I don’t want to put words or thoughts into people’s heads. I want them to think for themselves.”

I think her desire not to over-influence her viewers is (as it should be) a genuine concern for many artists, Jeff and Carl included. They hope to garner unique and genuine responses to their work and tend to be very successful in their endeavors, which I think speaks to their integrity as artists. At shows, they rarely have up much more than a short description of their work. The visitors to their booths have the distinct advantage of meeting the artists themselves and are able to form a much more organic and human connection to the art and the artist than are viewers who are simply confronted with disembodied work. Jeff and Carl take their viewer’s connection to their work so seriously, in fact, that they have chosen to use serial numbers rather than titles to keep track of their creations. “People ask me why my pieces are numbered and not named.  It’s that I think of them as machines and the numbering reflects that. It’s a serial number, starting from my first metal sculpture. I find that when I put a label or name on a piece, a person looks at it differently.  With a number, each viewer comes away with his or her own thoughts. An engineer, a child, or even a scrap metal dealer comes away with a different view, all equally valid, and all equally personal,” says Jeff.

Zachmann photos (22 of 54)

 

While I’m still a little bemused by the idea of an artist statement for visual art, I am obviously not ready to dismiss their usefulness altogether. It’s exciting, however, when an artist thinks enough of their viewers to give them the freedom for personal reflection. I truly admire the artists who give me a job to do when looking at their art. That, to me, keeps things far from boring.

For The Young At Heart

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN

I have a challenge for you: name three artist (other than Jeff and Carl) that make kinetic sculptures without Google-ing “Kinetic Sculptor”. Honestly, I get as far as Duchamp and his bicycle wheel and I’m out. Not being trained in art history could be a factor in my failure, but I like to think it’s because theirs is a field not populated by many. Walking through the Minneapolis Institute of Art last week, I saw nothing that could compare to a Zachmann original. It was kind of cool to think about, but it also made me wonder if Jeff finds particular kinetic inspiration or feels “kinetic kinship” with any artists in any museums around the country. Turns out, he does!

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Jeff’s favorite museum is the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Among other amazing works of art, they have a piece there called Calder’s Circus. Created from 1926 to 1931 by Alexander Calder, the piece is a sculptural, kinetic representation of a circus. Using wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, and bottle caps, Calder made movable models that performed all parts of the circus. The circus has everything from a ringleader with an impressive top hat to a daredevil lion tamer. Check it out:

Calder's Circus, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Calder’s Circus, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Calder first started the piece in Paris, where he would perform it for friends with comments in French. The circus went back and forth with him from Paris to New York until it was finished in 1931. Each piece in the circus moved mechanically with manipulation by Calder’s hands. Jeff says seeing the circus was one of the things that turned him on to kinetic art in the first place. The energy and heart that went into the creation of such an intricate work is arguably what is most impressive about the circus, and the artist’s wholehearted involvement with his work really struck Jeff when he saw it for the first time. It inspired him to do what he loved and what interested him the most. “The guy never grew up,” he says of Calder. “He grew up just enough to use the tools.”

While Calder’s work is much different from anything made by a Zachmann, it still proves to be an inspiration and a peer to their form of kinetic art. Creating intriguing movement from static pieces in order to bring joy and/or excitement and/or childlike wonder to the viewer is not something most artists can do or even try to do. It is my hope that in a couple decades, someone will watch a video of a Zachmann or see it hanging in a museum and will think to themselves, “That guy grew up just enough to use the tools, and that’s where I’ll stop too.”

Below is part 1 of a video of Alexander Calder performing and explaining his circus. It’s really fun to watch, so I encourage you to take the time to do so. Then, leave a note about your favorite museum or your favorite piece of art and why you love it in the comments for this post!