by William Powhida
Dam Stuhltrager, Front Room, Naked Duck Gallery
Opening the fall season with three concurrent solo exhibitions, Brooklyn-based sculptor Mark Esper presents his vision of art governed by the supersensible forces of the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light, which illuminates Esper’s mechanical sculptures, is not his main concern. Seeing his varied apparatus allow us to apprehend the magnetic fields, infrared light, motion sensors, and electrical circuits that bring the sculptures to life. His concepts revolve around the transfer of energy, like the black pendulums of his dynamic “Gathered Voices” (2004) at Front Room Gallery.
A circular armature suspends the pendulums of “Gathered Voices” above a series of electromagnets that repel and attract the metal attached to the bottom of the gently swaying poles. As the metal passes over the magnets, a circuit is completed and a brief burst of sound issues from the speakers built into Esper’s handmade system. The swaying pendulums multiply the sound as each circuit is turned on and off by the magnetism that one might mistake for a current of air drifting through the gallery. Each of the magnet-speakers is connected by a series of snaking wires, which retreat to a circuit box controlling the polarity of each magnet in the ring. The complete structure, with its enigmatic purpose and fascinating internal logic, is perhaps the strongest of the pieces in Gizmology. Certainly, what is visible is as interesting as the forces that we can’t see but know are at work. The formal beauty of the work stems more from the execution of Esper’s idiosyncratic concepts than some preconceived aesthetic.
The second work at Front Room, “2973” (2003) is a kind of shadow inverter, which casts light instead of darkness. Esper seems to be asking us to see ourselves not as solid matter, but as part of the spectrum. It is an optimistic, almost spiritual gesture to suggest that there is more to us than flesh. The effect is made possible by an ingeniously simple use of infrared sensors attached to a quilt of 2,973 lights. When the viewer passes into the infrared beam, she breaks the circuit and her shadow lights up in a web of LEDs. Esper says the title refers to the number of people lost on 9/11. As a memorial, it is a personal one that weaves Esper’s scientific inquiry with his spiritual beliefs.
In the dimmed main space of Dam Stuhltrager, Esper elaborates on his shadow machine with “Enlightenment” (2002-4), a multi-layered windmill of LEDs. The viewer’s entrance into the gallery triggers motion sensors activating three staggered, motorized fan blades. As the blades begin to spin, her shadow is illuminated in the moving wall of light in three layers of red, yellow, and blue. Together, in the darkness, the colors merge and break apart in psychedelic patterns amid the outline of the viewer’s body. In the space, the open wall of blades feels slightly more sinister than the safety of the wall of light, but the impetus remains. Again, it seems Esper is trying to convince us that we are not merely shadows, but that we are part of a much larger system.
The scientific philosophy that underlies Esper’s work at Front Room and Dam Stuhltrager is absent in his installation at Naked Duck. The untitled installation is markedly different from the rest of Gizmology. Composed of a series of mechanical arms with guns mounted on the gallery walls, the elements move ominously toward light sources. There are flashlights in the darkened gallery that the casual viewer may simply ignore without prompting. Without the flashlight, the arms remain still in the darkness. While the work seems like a politically charged response to the dangers of governmental surveillance in this country, the message is diluted by the installation’s tepid interactivity. Having to engage the surveillance arms with flashlights is not as unnerving as being tracked without an apparent reason or cause. The installation embodies Esper’s DIY spirit, but it seems too didactic and is less well executed than his other works. Beyond the guns are two of Esper’s orrerys. The spinning, orbiting clock-like structures were the inspiration of his "Pentatonic Orrery" shown in 2002 at Dam Stuhltrager. Here, the two small orrerys spin counter to each other as small, toy trains travel endlessly atop them. The elegant, poetic structures are better representations of the artist than the troubled installation that precedes them.
The problems posed by executing three concurrent solo shows may have watered down Esper’s vision this time, but his successes with “Gathering Voices,” “Enlightenment,” and “2973” are rewarding experiences that compensate for the ambitious failures. It’s often quite hard to simply hang a show of paintings properly, let alone create three separate, interactive installations that demand the viewer’s participation. Esper cannot be faulted for ambition. His work requires the support and attention of larger institutions, more than the brave independent galleries can provide. Patrons and institutions alike should start paying attention.