Confounding Contraption

A comfy rocking chair is a good place to sit and think, but San Francisco artist Bernie Lubell wants viewers to think about the chair. Not only that, he wants them to sit in his minimalist pine rocker in order to get their cognitive juices flowing. When someone rocks in the kinetic sculpture Confluence and Compression, one of the Lubell installations in the exhibition "Sufficient Latitude," a shaft affixed to its base turns a ratchet gear mounted on the wall. As the gear turns, another set of rods squeezes together the parts of a wooden mechanism in the next room until they break. This action, according to the artist's statement, suggests that "time seems continuous yet events seem discrete."

Hmm. It looks like a chair to us, but apparently its thought-provoking mechanics make it art. Like the chair, most of Lubell's elaborate, Tinkertoyish structures may be operated by viewers in some fashion, whether by rocking in a chair or turning a crank. As artistic as Lubell wants viewers to think his pieces are, the way they work also demonstrates the zany logic of their designs. The Etiology of Innocence, for example, is based on a 19th-century model of the human heart. Its series of belts, pulleys, gears, and bellows is mounted on a wooden scaffold. Cranking a handle pumps air through latex tubes, which brings other gizmos in the piece to life and emits breathing and gurgling sounds. Also connected to the crank is a mechanical drum, which simulates the thump of a heartbeat.

The show's title work, commissioned for the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth, is equally intriguing, and its function is just as nonutilitarian. When the pedals on a stationary bike are pushed, the sounds of waves and thunder accompany a wooden figure rowing a boat.

Lubell's pieces don't really do anything, but their science-project-gone-awry looks are intriguing. And although the artist isn't an aspiring inventor, his tinkering ways do have historical precedent. After all, if Archimedes hadn't been goofing around with boards and fulcrums, he would never have come up with his catapult.

Lubell's designs, though, have more in common with the wacky drawings of another San Franciscan than with inventions. Cartoonist Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) created the character Prof. Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, a mad-scientist type who built hundreds of ridiculously complex and impractical cause-and-effect devices. In fact, in the American Heritage dictionary, Rube Goldberg is defined as an adjective that relates to "a contrivance that brings about by complicated means what apparently could have been accomplished simply."

Maybe so, but Lubell's contrivances are also a lot of fun.

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John Ferri