Artopia: Touch My Crankshaft

Chris McMullen’s outsized mechanical art makes interaction imperative.

Some conceptual artists draw their inspiration from the theory courses they took at RISD. But as he bolts together a sculpture in his backyard, next to a '66 Ford Galaxie 500, Reno native Chris McMullen says, "I grew up seeing truck and tractor pulls and racecars. In my artwork, I kind of cross those things."Leverage, for example, is a one-ton kinetic steel sculpture designed not to be seen but used, reflecting McMullen's preference for creating "stuff that people can shove around." During its open-air display near Redmond Town Center for the past year and a half, "Kids reacted to it like a big jungle gym," he says. "Having something interactive on a public stage was interesting. In a gallery, it's controlled."Leverage is designed to be touched, used, torqued by people "feeding in that power," McMullen explains. "It's basically a nine-foot-long crankshaft. It acts like a V-8." In fact, he previously built a V-8 engine out of wood (though it won't be on display this Saturday). Making a return appearance at Artopia is Krane With a K, which requires delicate, synchronized interaction among its users—again, something like pistons. Using four winches roped to the same crane hook, people try to grab and stack blocks lying within the structure. It's an exercise in coordinated effort and controlled motion. Also: forced social interaction. As McMullen observes, "You can go to a gallery and experience all kinds of art and not talk to anyone." (Krane will also be at Bumbershoot this year; other work of his is on view through July 12 at Tacoma's Fulcrum Gallery.)Working in South Seattle, McMullen finds himself "inspired by industry and process—machinery. All the stuff that's used to make stuff." Like his friends and fellow artists at Hazard Factory (see page 5), he uses his metal-shop and fabrication skills to freelance commercial jobs. And he likes to work big—none of your fussy little tabletop items, but works big and sturdy enough to be manipulated and set into motion. "Human-scale is what I call it," he says. "I'm trying to make movement be the thing that is the focus. I'm trying to create a pleasing movement that is repetitive."Having collaborated on a giant, 50-foot-tall installation at Burning Man '05, McMullen's biggest challenge is finding galleries or commissions of commensurate size. He showed some of his pieces, employing belts, pulleys, and chains, at Grey Gallery last summer. Prior to that, his most recent solo show was at Greg Lundgren's temporary Vital 5 space back in 2002. "It's a problem I constantly have—making things of this scale and finding a buyer," McMullen says. "Ideally, [Leverage] would be in the Olympic Sculpture Park."Or, given his interest in applied physics, another venue naturally suggests itself: "In a sense, a lot of my work is like going to Pacific Science Center."

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