Greg Block put his first machine, from 2007, on his head.
“I have more hair now than I used to,” Block explained as he adjusted the wood mechanism on his long, blond dreadlocks.
Like most of his work, the wood thing on his head seemed like something made by elves. In front, two rectangular handles swung from a crown that looked like a cross between a medieval Hot Wheels track and a device for reading minds. I could barely see his face for all the flywheels and levers, arms and counterweights between us.
I wondered if it did anything, really. He carefully pulled one of the dangling tabs. It ground and squeaked, resulting in parting a quarter-size metal piece on thin dowels in front of his eye. When he pulled the other, a second one opened and closed.
“It’s a winking machine,” Block said, as he made it wink over and over. He laughed.
I laughed, too, because of the absurdity and charm of this useless, useful machine. And because of the intensely personal quality of the work, which is beautifully rendered and spoke, however obliquely, of this artist’s particular point of view.
“But it’s accessible,” said Scott Johnson, an artist and Colorado College professor. “That’s rare to find work with that strong personal dimension that’s also so accessible. So much of post-modern work is about the artist as persona and building that personal mythology.”
Block’s work is on display at Smokebrush Gallery through Sept. 25. He’s also teaching a workshop (Sept. 26 and 27) on how to make a photovoltaic lantern.
Talk to him awhile and you’ll find he’s interested in a lot of things: the way technology can mimic nature; turning a viewer into an “operator”; raising the automatic to awareness; calling attention to how we navigate the world.
Yet he also equated his work to the learning tools you might see in a children’s museum.
“I was really torn about whether to go into science or art,” said Block, who is 23 and, in May, received a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in art, from CC. The winking machine was his solution to an assignment for Johnson’s introductory-sculpture class. He got an A.
So I asked him: Do you think of your work as art?
He stared off into the dim of the studio, shaking his head. No, he said. “I don’t consider it art. It doesn’t elevate some (lofty) idea. I think of it as an illustration of an idea.”
Maybe it’s not art, but then again, maybe it is.
Block walked over to his version of a corkscrew, a 9-foot guillotine sitting against a wall in the cinder-block shop. The piece, he explained, was inspired by the dozens of elaborate wine openers you see in shops and in magazines such as The New Yorker. If it only takes three basic motions to uncork a bottle, he concluded, then perhaps these fancy little machines are really about spectacle, not functionality.
So, in his playful rendering, the pomp is Job 1. As he cranked the handle on the contraption’s side, the blade rose and a little cart, which held the wine bottle horizontally, neck first, moved inexorably down a track. Pull a cord, and the blade shot down.
“It cuts the cork and then shatters the bottle in middle, which is the weakest point,” Block said. A box of bottles — full and empty — testified to his dedicated experimentation. “It opens the wine, but spills it all over the place. It’s terribly inefficient.”
Block, who was born in Steamboat Springs, has no real training in art, although he paints well (some paintings are paired with his machines and schematics in the Smokebrush show) and has developed a following back home. Likewise, his only tutelage in woodworking came when he’d sweep up a distant neighbor’s wood shop in exchange for hanging around.
“It’s really just a trial-and-error experience, as scary as that sounds, with table saws,” he says. “It’s about reading the machine, reading the wood, figuring out what I want it to do, and then, how to do it.”
Looking back, other artists have used the machine as a fulcrum for their ideas. There’s Leonardo da Vinci, of course, who delineated his apparently fanciful mechanisms in careful drawings. Dadaists such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia made nonsensical mechanisms as oblique as they were elegant. Or Alexander Calder, in the days before he realized that the random nature of the mobile held more magic.
And even though it can be a hard sell in the investment-driven art market, artists still gravitate to machines — in robots, motorized mechanisms, in objects that look like something hailed in the 1939 World’s Fair.
Bay Area artist Benjamin Cowden makes machines, meticulously crafted metalworks that explore social interaction, the random nature of life and the Sisyphean challenge of finding one’s path.
“To this day, the thing I most enjoy about my work, which I believe sets it aside from most static work, as well as electronic and new media, is the look of discovery on people’s faces as they handle my machines,” Cowden says, “and (to) see how they work, where the movement they are creating changes into the movement of the machine. It is a joy that is accessible to children, adults, art patrons and people who have never been to a museum.”
It’s the same with Block’s lettuce dryer — an elaborate fan with arching pieces to which you attach wet leaves — or the apple stemmer — a vicious-looking box of gears with two nail-studded paddles and a pincer to grab and twist the stem off, with the operator’s help.
It’s the pointlessness of the action, however successfully executed, and the viewer’s engagement in the work fulfilling its mission. When was the last time you touched a piece of art, much less put it on your head?
Block talks about the stemmer: “You know the childhood game of twisting off the stem?”
The synchronicity of saying the alphabet with each turn would reveal, at the break, the initial of the person you’d marry.
Maybe you’d get that from working it. Maybe not.
Still, there’s a strange kind of poetry there, a profundity that speaks to more than the function at hand.
This could be art.
The question of wonder
I stood in front of a sinewy little piece with two small vials at the top. I watched him turn the handle with care. The pistons moved the vials in an amusing little cha-cha that sometimes unseated the vials.
I wondered what it is.
He smiled when I said it.
“You question the machine, and the machine questions you,” said Block, who plans to take at least a year off school. After that, he’s just not sure what he’ll do.
“It’s that idea of wonder,” he went on. “You look at these with curious eyes. You never reach an end (to the questions), because the minute you stop getting answers to life is the minute you don’t have to live any longer.”
As I left the studio, Block shrugged when I asked again: Is it art? Maybe, the shrug said. Or maybe not.
When: Through Sept. 25 Opening reception 5-8 p.m. today.
Where: Smokebrush Gallery, 218 W. Colorado Ave.
Admission: Free; 444-1012, smokebrush.org
Something else: Block’s work is included in “Flaunt,” 7 to 11 p.m. Sept. 12 under the Colorado Avenue Bridge; $30 to $60; 255-3232, flauntsprings.com
B.I.G. Idea Workshop: Learn how to make photovoltaic lanterns with Block from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sept. 26 and 27. Admission is $120 including materials; 444-1012, smokebrush.org
For more info, click here.