Arts harvest

Technologies new and old combine at gallery’s debut exhibit

Get close to the harvester and crack the nut.

Get close to the harvester and crack the nut.

Photo courtesy of Jacki Headley University Art Gallery

Shaker, by Marek Walczak & Wesley Heiss, now showing at the University Art Gallery through Oct. 15. Open house: Thursday, Sept. 1, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Artist talk: Oct. 13, 6:30 p.m. (in Zingg Recital Hall), followed by reception.
Jacki Headley University Art Gallery
Arts & Humanities Building
Chico State

Shaker, the premiere installation at the just-opened Jacki Headley University Art Gallery in the opulent new Arts & Humanities Building on the Chico State campus, is a celebration of technology old and new—from the vintage hydraulic self-propelled nut harvesters so essential to the almond industry to the art of 3-D printing being explored by today’s innovators. Using digitally manipulated images from varying perspectives, New England-based artist team Marek Walczak & Wesley Heiss (the same artists responsible for the “Facewall” sculpture on the Second Street side of the new building) created a series of 3-D printed sculptural variations on the harvester.

The installation’s title, painted in increasingly large, slightly skewed orange letters, greets entrants and leads the viewer to a line of five variations of the nut harvester modeled in plastic of a matching orange. These small pieces are mounted and lit on the wall in a way that emphasizes the shadows they cast as much as the models themselves. The plastic is visibly striated, showing each layer as it was laid down in the process of being “printed” in three dimensions, and the effect is something like seeing the brush strokes that a painter uses to create texture.

But it’s the shadows cast by the pieces that are most fascinating. The meticulous arrangement of lights focused from different perspectives in the gallery’s ceiling cast multiple shadows of varying intensity beneath each, with the overlapping shades of gray bringing out shapes that serve as a sort of visual subtext underwriting the varied shapes of the plastic models.

Turning clockwise, one darkened corner of the room is dominated by the silhouette of orchard trees projected in pale blue light over the gray-shaded white wall. The effect is delicate and ornamental, providing a complementary color and biological softness to contrast the stiff industrial linearity of another, much larger, orange plastic harvester mounted on a rectangular wooden block several feet out from the wall. This model, a bit over a yard long and a foot or so high, clasps a black pole with its hydraulic shaker clamp. Fastened to the pole is a chrome manual nutcracker over a receptacle for the shells deposited by exhibit attendees who have gleaned the purpose of the bowl of almonds sitting on the desk of the gallery docent in the vestibule of the gallery.

As the exhibit statement puts it, “As visitors walk through the space, the machine is at first unrecognizable, perversely distorted through digital manipulation. Yet, from one singular vantage point the piece pulls into focus. In this spot, perception and function collapse as the shaker defies its grand scale to crack a single nut.” There is a nice special-effect surprise for those who can find the singular spot, but frankly this visitor found that “interactive” element unnecessary and discordantly distracting from the visual richness of the installation as a whole.

On the other hand, the nearly life-size silhouette of the harvester that fills much of one corner, painted in a gray to match the shadows cast by the smaller models on the title wall opposite, creates a spot where scale and lighting and artificial shadow combine to create perspective that is both pleasing and provocative to the eye.