Two-person show at 1078 Gallery looks at history of society’s relationship with technology
A few years after the publication of his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury watched a woman walking down the street cradling a small radio in her hand, with headphones latched on her ears, supposedly ignoring her walking companions to devote her attention to the buzzing radio, playing a melodramatic soap opera. Bradbury was clearly scandalized by this little instance of the unraveling of the social fabric as he understood it, but in the recounting of it, he also appeared unwittingly thrilled.
Much art produced in the post-1945 era would take a doubtful position in relation to new forms of media, but some of it was also tinged with notes of excitement about change. The burgeoning category of pop art was largely made by artists invested in forms of making that resisted and parodied the cynical languages of advertising, but showed a contradictory, tonal cheekiness that betrayed a fondness for advertising all the same. Ferrous, a showing of the mostly sculptural artworks of Doug Rathbun and Ulises Meza currently on view at the 1078 Gallery, puts itself directly in dialogue with these historical times of fantasy and worry about how the future would unfold.
Rusted, moving rockets are on offer. There are ceramic figural busts wearing the leather helmets and goggles of early air pilots and the delicate scars of raku pottery. Found silver spoons are filled with tiny molded metal figures, resembling toy soldiers welded together. The pièce de résistance is a wonderfully rickety large-scale model Ferris wheel, covered with candles made in the shape of small heads. These pieces make time, nostalgia, guarded worry and unapologetic celebration of the technological collapse and collide.
In a talk about the works given on opening night, Rathbun, a local artist who has shown frequently in the area, stated that Bradbury’s novel was a departure point for his thematic concerns, as were early science-fiction adventure comics like Flash Gordon. Noting that what was once the outlandish realm of science fiction is now so frequently our everyday reality, Rathbun seems to work with some of the contradictions of technological advancement, while still lingering aesthetically in vintage charms.
Rathbun’s works often rely on the hands of viewers to work. His unwieldy Ferris wheel may be operated by winding a metal crank—it’s fun to turn it. He also produced a hefty, wooded sculpture with a small image embedded in the center, which may be lit-up by the viewer’s flick of a switch. Rathbun quite sadly evokes the lost dreams of abandoned amusement parks with his rusted metal contraptions, but the necessary intervention of the viewer, and the very vibrant functionality of these lantern-like sculptures, seems also to assert some hope about ways to connect and move forward together, as old distant hopes and untapped possibilities come together within them.
Meza, who has a master’s in sculpture from Chico State, mentioned in his talk that an emphasis on material comes forward in his ceramic pieces, as does a focus on the figure. Meza often works with strong industrial materials like steel, but also crafts small, fragile, ceramic sculptures that tell ambiguous stories.
Unmoored from any discernible time, his recurring images—like that of a small boyish figure riding the back of a bear—call upon mysterious mythologies but resist being pinned down to any in particular. Shifting between the serious and the novel, the historical and the fabricated, these figures invite a complex relationship to the question of progress as well. Chilling and beautiful, Meza’s figures seem to want to charge forward, but we don’t know if they are threatening or friendly.
Ferrous, while registering some moments of mournfulness, or pausing at the question of progress, mostly gives viewers big doses of the whimsical. We can and should bristle at all of the enormous costs that come along with leaping into the technological future, but then we can turn a great crank with innocent glee, and appreciate its occasional harmless joys, as well.