Joseph Kohnke’s latest solo exhibition at Angles Gallery in Culver City was so good, it’s worth seeing twice. I first visited the exhibition during it’s opening reception on September 7th. Caught amidst the bustling crowd drawn to the kickoff of the Fall art season in the galleries along La Cienega and Washington, in a room full of people, Kohnke’s work is literally not given the space it needs to operate properly, and it loses it’s edge. But I was intrigued enough to come again, and I am glad I did. What I saw the second time around was something far beyond what I had seen the first time. Kohnke makes kinetic sculptures. He takes found objects, adds a little bit of engineering wizardry, and brings them to life. Utterly mundane objects such as lunchboxes, candlestick, televisions, train sets, or even found paintings are taken and transformed into something entirely new. In most cases, he introduces an element of movement into the sculptures, animating them usually in a fairly subtle way (in one instance, the movement is actually only understood through sound). While his work is very mechanical, what is surprising about Kohnke’s art is that it is actually very human. What makes his work so successful is that it is not about only about technology, but about the body, space, and perception as well
During my first visit, I saw some pretty cool looking sculptures. A toy train chugs steadily along a track, weaving in and out of creepy plastic toy dolls. My first thought: that’s pretty uncanny. Sure enough, that is a word that I later saw on the press release. There is something quite compelling and familiar, almost nostalgic, but at the same time something off-putting and surreal. In another room, am accordion hangs on wires, positioned and modified to look like a car engine. A soft humm is emitted out through eight cylinder bores, a musical take on the roar of an engine. While “engine” might be where the brain initially goes to, after some contemplation my brain also went to “heart”. The cylinders are arteries, the noise is a heartbeat, and the machine is the life source of the exhibition. Or perhaps something much bigger. These two pieces were fortunate enough to be given their own small rooms in which to be viewed, but the rest of the works were not as lucky.
The bulk of the exhibition is presented in the largest gallery. While all the works crammed together in the adjacent room certainly speak to each other in a cohesive manner, there are too many physical limitations imposed on them. This is what became apparent in my second visit. Kohnke’s sculpture aren’t merely kinetic. They are human activated. They are interactive. As I approached each piece, a motion sensor would go off, and with a “click” the art came into life. This element is completely lost when the gallery is full and therefore the sensors constantly engaged. But in a less crowded gallery, the audience can view the work the way it was meant to be viewed. I walk towards a table, and the miniature oil rigs made out of plastic utensils start to move. I get too close to sprawling lunch boxes, and the thermal missile’s inside them become armed and ready to launch. I circle around a television, and the television keeps an eye on me via its antennae that rise up depending on my location. The frame of a small painting of a ship sways slowly. The wind-catching “flames” of candles spin as the viewer walks around. Unfortunately, the sculptures are often against walls and corners, diminishing their impact.
The artist has a very strong sense of aesthetic identity in his work. Not quite steampunk, not quite surrealism, but definitely some sort of industrial angle. The outdated technologies bring us into a world that seems like some warped vision of the past. Oldschool American lunch boxes reminiscent of an era when missile placement led to political upheaval. A television watching us takes us back to the decade when people watching television came to define a culture. Kohnke creates a world and not only invites us in, but he invites us to play as well. He creates a relationship in which the viewer not only activates the work, but becomes an integral part of it as well. Our bodies share the space with these machines (whether they be mechanical, political, or cultural), and our understanding of them shifts. They are not distant abstractions, we are in fact part of them.
“Displacements” is on view at Angles Gallery until October 26th.
Words and images by Noé Gaytán