AVAM's stunning new show doesn't need much backstory

Allen Christian is standing in front of one of his four striking sculptures in the new exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum when he says, "Sometimes it's helpful to hear the story behind a work of art, but it shouldn't be necessary. I think you can create things that tell a story visually, that people can understand just by what they bring to it."

Christian has put his finger on the crisis afflicting the two main currents in modern American art-so-called "contemporary art" and so-called "outsider art." These two genres have little in common except this: The art in both arenas is often overwhelmed by the explanations. The conceptual art that dominates the first field is often more concept than art, and the second arena often puts more emphasis on the biographical information about the prisoners, mental patients, housewives, and retirees who made the art than on the art itself.

Fortunately, the new AVAM show, Human Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity, is filled with objects that are so attractive on first glance and so intriguing on subsequent inspection that no backstory is needed. Christian's biography, for example, is not that interesting-the army vet's an electrician by day in Minneapolis and a sculptor by night and on weekends-but his sculptures are fascinating.

Most of the publicity for the new exhibit boasts a photo of Christian's "Piano Family: Amorosa," a good choice, for this armless, legless sculpture is both beautiful and unnerving. Beautiful because the piano parts that have been layered over a mannequin create lines and symmetries that keep leading our eyes around her body, and unnerving because these felt hammers and wooden levers remind us of those anatomy textbook illustrations where the skin has been removed and the muscles and arteries revealed.

The uncanny sensation that human bodies can resemble machines and vice versa gives the show a strong, unifying theme, something the past few AVAM exhibitions have lacked. One needn't read all the verbiage on the walls to appreciate the connections between "Amorosa" and Steve Heller's nearby robot "Not Plain Jane" or Kenny Irwin's "Sanmagnetron" in the adjacent gallery. Our readiness to recognize a woman in Christian's piano parts or Heller's used-car parts and a father figure in Irwin's melted plastic prompts us to contemplate how mechanical our own bodies are and how lifelike our machines.

"I like working with older materials," Christian adds, "because they have more of a form/function interplay. The people who built those older objects modeled them on themselves in some way. What I do is reassemble the person who created the pieces in the first place."

He's standing in front of his "Ajax" sculpture, a robot whose torso is a cylinder created by boiler tanks; matching steam irons have been added for arms, and a big brass faucet for his genitals. Doors in the torso open on spinning skulls, sliding rectangles in a green light, and a red velvet curtain. The curtain suggests that even when we pry open a human being and examine his inner workings, there's still something hidden and mysterious.

Heller also values older materials. As he stands by "Not Plain Jane," the Hudson Valley artist explains how he has turned vintage auto parts into a female robot. Her breasts are bullet-shaped red taillights from a 1953 Buick, her high heels are bumper guards from a 1955 Ford, her stomach is the radio grill from a 1954 Oldsmobile, and her genitals are a rearview mirror from a 1964 Ford. Look too closely and you'll see yourself.

"My career as an artist started," he explains, "when I was getting ready to take all this scrap metal left over from working on cars to the dump. I looked at it spread out on the ground, and it was all crap-but it was really good crap. I started welding it together into animals, dinosaurs, and spaceships, and I never stopped.

"Truckers stop by my place, and they get all excited by my art. They may not know much about culture, but they can identify all the auto parts in the sculptures. They like seeing something they know transformed into something else."

New Jersey's Sally Willowbee does something similar with "Code Pink Lights up the World," which transforms aluminum kitchenware into a miniature robot that also functions as a table lamp. Adjacent to that are three of her "Computer Angels" that she crafted from motherboard fragments, Mexican milagros, and earrings into tiny totem figures in remembrance of former Baltimore resident Ro Scalzo after her death.

"It's exciting to me to see things inside of something else," she says. "When I was a kid, I loved to see the sycamore shed its bark and reveal the tree inside. Even today I like to see mailboxes that have been decorated as something else. I like art that celebrates ordinary life."

The biggest presence in the new show is Kenny Irwin, who has been given a whole gallery for an installation of his choice and three walls outside the gallery for 18 of his ballpoint-pen illustrations and 12 of his childhood notebooks. Inside the gallery, "Sanmagnetron" stands atop "Santa's Mega Casino Stealth Bull," an armor-plated, all-white spaceship with mounted guns that use doves for ammunition. This Christmas sleigh is pulled by nine "Ferocious Toilet Bowl Deer," so named because each two-headed animal emerges from a porcelain toilet with a white tiger head bearing blackened fangs below and a white deer head bearing reins-entangled antlers above.

The sleigh and deer curl around a black-and-white Christmas tree; under the tree are such presents as microwaved cellphones and plastic skulls. In niches all around the room are the 13 "Nutcrackonators," traditional Nutcracker dolls transformed into cyborgs via mechanical limbs and melted-plastic cranial grafts. The whole room, called "Have Yourself a Happy Little Robotmas," is a tiny sample of Irwin's 4-acre "RoboLights" display at his father's house in Palm Springs, Calif. That display draws 20,000 visitors a year and has been featured in the New York Times and on Conan O'Brien's and Oprah Winfrey's TV shows.

"'Robotmas' is a spinoff from 'RoboLights,' which I've been working on since I was 12 years old," Irwin says. "The museum sent me the dimensions for the gallery and it took me just a minute to know what it would look like. I took the dimensions and created a room 3,000 miles away. I built everything by hand, and 90 percent of it is new."

Irwin, 39, wears a green Islamic cap, and his brown beard extends to his chest. He insists that many of his artworks are realistic depictions of his "dreamt experiences" on other worlds. No matter how skeptical or credulous you may be of such claims, the backstory should not distract from the sculptures themselves, which are handsomely original even as they simultaneously mock and celebrate our winter holidays. It's as if Hieronymus Bosch had bought a rowhouse on 34th Street in Hampden and made his own contribution to the block's famously over-the-top Christmas displays.

The only other artist to get a whole gallery is Fred Carter, the southwestern Virginia farmer and carpenter who died in 1992 at age 81. His nine paintings, two collages, and 17 wooden carvings don't have much to do with the show's theme of the human/machine interface, but Carter's work is so powerful that it would be a welcome addition to any show, no matter the theme. The two best paintings, "Angry Earth Mother" and "We Are All Suffering," create a dramatic tension by having the curving colors try to break through the black field. The shapes and contrasts are so strong that the paintings transcend their allegorical purpose.

Even better are the carvings, which range from two bas reliefs and six busts to full-figured sculptures. The pregnant woman who emerges from one tree trunk glows with happiness as her belly thrusts toward the viewer. The old prophet who raises his arms in dismay at the current state of the world has perforated ribs pressing against his skin and a howling mouth. One 9-foot-tall, two-faced figure wrestles with a giant snake, and the body twists in ways that suggest the outcome is still in doubt; one face is optimistic but the other is not.

Not everything in Human Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity is as mind-tickling and eye-tickling as these works by Christian, Irwin, and Carter, but this show boasts a much better batting average than any AVAM show since 2007's All Faiths Beautiful. Budget restraints, however, have confined the new exhibit to two-thirds of the second floor rather than the whole floor given to earlier shows. Picking up the slack are pieces from the museum's growing permanent collection (including two by Christian) and a holdover, underwhelming, one-man show by Frank Bruno.

Human Soul and Machine: The Coming Singularity is At the American Visionary Art Museum through Aug. 31, 2014.

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