Artist Glenn Smith finds tales in tools at the Art Base Annex
If You Go …
What: ‘Mechanical Love Stories,’ Glenn Smith
Where: The Art Base Annex, Basalt
When: Through May 7
More info: www.theartbase.org
A patron at the Art Base Annex in Basalt approached artist Glenn Smith on Wednesday afternoon and offered to bring him an obsolete rotary phone that she’s kept lying around. Smith enthusiastically jumped at the offer.
“I’m in! I’ll take it!” he said.
For the artist, whose exhibition “Mechanical Love Stories” opened at the Annex last week, such objects are both his inspirations and his materials. The show uses vintage power tools, industrial age relics and a clever trickster’s creativity to craft artworks both playful and poignant.
Smith began on this body of work when he took apart his father’s old Craftsman drill and started putting it back together as sculpture that served as a sort of memorial. The experience made him curious about other old industrial tools and their histories.
“I started getting very involved with — or, better yet, making up — the stories of what these tools have been through,” he explained. “The whole show is sort of about the silent stories of the history of things.”
Smith has lived in Aspen for three decades and worn many hats — you may know him as a stand-up comic, as a chef at the Cooking School of Aspen, or as a fly-fishing guide. But as he’s focused on his machine age art, he’s earned a reputation as a repository for old industrial equipment — friends and neighbors often drop boxes of rusted junk on his Snowmass Village doorstep. He also frequently rummages around a used tool shop on Larimer Street in Denver and, as he puts it, “EBay can be dangerous.”
These scavenged treasures are the raw materials for the surprisingly diverse and engrossing collection now filling the Annex. Some suggest stories and ideas in their form, while others literally hold written stories, with hidden messages scrawled on steel screws and bits.
“I describe it as a little bit of Dada, a little Natural History Museum and a lot of the Discovery Channel’s ‘How It’s Made,’” Smith said.
In “257,” a handsaw is situated mid-cut in a block of wood beside a piece of glass with the poem, “Honorable Death, 257” written on it, memorializing the 257 teeth in the blade and other phenomena related to the number.
“Result” offers a magnifying glass with the word “RESULT” on it — look through the lens and the words “execution” and “intent” appear on translucent vellum. Another perception piece invites viewers to look through a camera lens: flip the lens one way and you see a figurine of a farmer, flip it the other and you see vials of chemicals below him.
A power saw, with an elegant Art Deco design has been disassembled, its pieces sculpted like a three-dimensional technical drawing.
For “Shooter 19” a hand drill evokes a handgun — a box below it filled with drill bits and shell casings.
Nearby, the innards of a computer hold out a smartphone on a steel rod like a selfie stick, along with the message “Take a selfless.”
Smith allows the objects themselves to drive his process. A tongue-in-cheek piece titled “Deepak” began with a 1970s-era hand drill that suggested to him the period’s rise of new age thought — he disassembled it and put it back together with a series of rods running through the center, suggesting a blast of enlightenment.
Last year, he brought some of the “Mechanical Love Stories” pieces to a First Fridays show in Denver. Smith loved the way that people got in up close to the pieces, looking for the hidden messages and Easter eggs within, and the fact that it drew the attention of paint-spattered tradesmen and machinists alongside the fine art crowd.
Along with Smith’s sculptures, the Annex show includes photographs out of the same spirit. His “Warning Signs” series offers split-screen combinations of actual industrial caution signs — half of words like “flammable,” “corrosive” and “dangerous” are bisected and placed beside one another, all framed in industrial steel casings that the artist collected after they fell off of a FedEx truck.
“I’m kind of fascinated with the ‘Don’t cut off your finger’ stickers on machines and signs of people being electrocuted,” he said with a laugh.
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