Device Gallery in San Diego

Device Gallery takes art, and us, into the next century

By Kinsee Morlan, first published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/26/2008

Walking through Device Gallery, it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future, in which man meets machine in an imperfect and awkward, yet intriguingly beautiful, union. The biomechanical works of artists like Stéphane Halleux, with his darling found-object sculpture of a civil servant holding a briefcase and zipping around via propellers sprouting from his head, remind us of the possibilities. As we strive more and more toward immortality, or at least living a few years longer than our parents, could our unreliable and deteriorating flesh one day end where permanent, more dependable and imaginative machine and metal begins?

In the future that Device Gallery’s current show, Fantastic Contraption, proposes, the answer is yes.

Sound extreme or absurd? Try to think of an old song lyric you swear is at the tip of your tongue and see how long it takes before you give up on your failed firing neurons and run to a computer where Google makes the synaptic connections for you. The man-machine interdependence has already begun. The artists in Fantastic Contraption simply look ahead and show us what we’ve started.

The artwork currently exhibited in Device Gallery is futuristic and mostly mechanical, but there’s also something primordial and organic about most of it, too. Take the installations by Wayne Martin Belger on Device’s easternmost wall: The displays consist of pinhole cameras made of perfectly fused titanium and copper welded to things like vials filled with HIV-positive blood, a real human heart from a deceased infant and a 500-year-old Tibetan skull. All the handmade cameras are surrounded by a few of the eerie prints the cameras have produced over the years.

The dark and freaky nature of Belger’s installations is startling at first—especially to the older La Jolla socialites who’ve been wandering in since the gallery opened its doors in July—but when Amy Brotherton, who co-owns Device with her husband Greg, tippy-toes up behind you to talk about Belger’s work, the vision of both the artist and the show is eventually understood.

Amy will cheerfully explain how Belger starts with a subject, studies it for months, and then, using machinist skills he acquired from his father, builds a pinhole camera out of precious metals, relics and artifacts directly related to the subject. Not until all of that is done, she’ll explain, does Belger finally feel comfortable enough to actually shoot the subject.

Belger explained things himself last month while pulling on a wetsuit and preparing to dive into a tank at Scripps Aquarium to photograph his latest subject, manmade kelp forests, with his handmade underwater pinhole camera.
“I’ve always believed in the rabbit-hole theory,” he said. “You know, if you’re gonna get into something, you should get into something completely and totally.”

It’s this kind of hardcore dedication, deep-rooted understanding and mechanical craftsmanship that Amy and Greg looked for while piecing together Fantastic Contraption. In all of the works exhibited in the show, even the more traditional two-dimensional paintings by Eduard Anikonov, there’s a quality of expertise and know-how that’s hard to find in these postmodern, anything-is-art times. Every piece in the show is just as much about the process as it is about the finished product.

“We wanted to see craftsmanship brought back,” Greg said. “We missed things made by hand. Our contemporary art world has a deficit. We’ve rejected craft in favor of conceptual, and I think people miss that, because I think there’s something very human and—”

“Oh, how did that guy describe it?” Amy interjected. “He said all the work in the show had—”

“Integrity,” Greg finished.

Like a surprising number of artists in Fantastic Contraption, Greg and Amy come from a background in the film and entertainment industry—Greg as an animator and graphic designer, Amy in public relations. The young couple left the hustle-bustle of L.A. and opened Device Gallery, mostly because of their son, Jack, an energetic 4-year-old who loves striking ninja poses and playing with Legos.

“I just think we wanted to do something that we found interesting and pass that on to our son,” said Amy. “You know, my dad always said, ‘I don’t know why you think work’s gotta be fun; if it were fun, it’d be called something else.’ But I don’t want to say that to my son, because you spend so much time working—most of your day is spent at work in the U.S. So I don’t want [Jack] to think you work to make money. I want him to think you can do something that’s fun or interesting.”

“Yeah, you can follow your dreams no matter how insane or impractical,” Greg said, erupting into a fit of his characteristic, semi-maniacal laughter.

Amy smiled, and then explained how Jack has already played at the feet of “Mercury,” the steel sculpture Greg built that stands 9 feet tall in the corner of Device (Greg has several sculptures in the Fantastic Contraption show). Amy says Jack has developed respect and appreciation for works of art; in fact, he even started referring to some of his toys as sculpture.

With all the looming robotic sculptures, crawling mechanical bugs and torture chairs lying around Device, it’d be easy to assume Greg and Amy have a dark aesthetic that will surface in all of their upcoming shows. But the couple says it isn’t so. The next show, Divide and Contour: The Retro Future, which opens Sept. 27, will again look toward the future, but this time (aside from the ray guns by Greg), the future is mostly bright, if somewhat strange.

“It’s not about being dark” Greg explained. “It’s about being different.”

Fantastic Contraption is on view at Device Gallery, 7881 Drury Lane in La Jolla, through Sept. 20. The gallery will hold a special reception with Wayne Belger from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13. RSVP to amy@devicegallery.com.www.devicegallery.com.

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