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Intentional Invention 

Although it is something of a truism that "necessity is the mother of invention," that may have been more true in the past than it is today. These days, novelty often seems to count for more, making it, in effect, the surrogate parent of countless inventions and innovations ranging from Segway scooters to oat bran pita bread. Such is often the case in the art world, as well, as we see in the strikingly eclectic array of gallery offerings this October.

Michael Gnad's Product Warning exhibit is a case in point. Comprised of several zany, mixed-media mechanical inventions and some fused-glass wall plaques suggesting logo-like warning signs, the show's contents were, according to Gnad, "intended as prototypes for mass-fabrication as home appliances." Surely he jests. It's a Rube Goldberg kind of social commentary that we see in works such as Mr. Peepers, a gleaming, oversized white owl with a 360-degree swivel neck and wide, staring eyes that beam green laser rays in the path of all it surveys. It's unclear whether the lasers can pack deadly force or merely trigger it from some other source, but this looks like something that would go over big with pest exterminators if not Homeland Security. On the wall is a warning plaque with the owl in profile, evil green tracers streaming from its golem-like eyes.

Others include Product Testing, a centrifuge-like motorized wading pool for stress-testing rubber ducks, a servo-controlled robotic sniper device, and an early warning system that deploys miniature beaver tails slapping the surface of the water in an aquarium at the first sign of intruders. If that sounds zany, the fused-glass plaques on the wall are as logo-like as street signs, satirical and surprisingly successful as pop-conceptual icons.

The Perfect Defect show at Radici celebrates the aesthetic attributes of the Holga camera, an under-$20 novelty item from China, long renowned for its sloppy construction and oddly old-fashioned and luminous lens quality. At their best, Holgas offer dreamlike images, a description that might apply to many of these works as well. Louvier + Vanessa's mythic and elaborately framed images are intriguing, yet their dense surface gloss and general fussiness makes them a tad hard to read (though still a bargain for the price). Some dramatic cloud photographs on silk scrolls by Tobias Morriss are pleasingly ethereal, though here again the images typically seem subservient to the total package. Elizabeth Underwood's photomontages appear as light boxes, which may or may not add to their mystery, and Marshall Marice's minimalist images are pristine if sometimes a little overwhelmed by their elaborate Plexi frames. As distracting as all this may be for photo purists, it should be noted that Radici is a craft gallery, so elaborate frames are not really out of place here. And everything is very affordable, providing exceptional value for the money.

Holga purists should check out Jennifer Shaw's typically much larger prints at the Darkroom on Sophie Wright Place. Shaw's poetic, urban-industrial compositions are gorgeously printed and look terrific on the Darkroom's expansive wall space. Novelty can also be found in Not Another Show by George Schmidt at the George Schmidt Gallery, which lives up to its name. Instead of featuring works by Schmidt, these are portraits of Schmidt by a variety of well known local artists in honor of his upcoming 60th birthday. Novelty and invention are not always so intentional. Altered Perceptions: An Art Show for Artists Who Happen to Have Mental Illness at Barrister's features a wide array of work in various media. And while some look like products of art therapy, others such as The Beast by Deanna Chauvin, Technophobia by Kevin Scott Shirley, Imaginary Victorian House by William Kelly, Bird's Eye by Kaitlin Ryan and Birth by Donna Richardson, to name but a few, are examples of perspectives that really do transcend the predictable. Altered is a mixed bag, but it's also provocative, with a few hidden gems and prices often below what is ordinarily considered reasonable. While most great artists were not mentally ill, and most mentally ill artists are not great, this show strikes a happy medium with at least some examples of unexpectedly exceptional work.

click to enlarge Mr. Peepers, like a lot of Michael Gnad's mixed-media mechanical inventions, is a Rube Goldberg kind of social commentary.
  • Mr. Peepers, like a lot of Michael Gnad's mixed-media mechanical inventions, is a Rube Goldberg kind of social commentary.
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