Art in Paradise: The Art of the Contraption

Gina Kamentsky’s sculptures don’t just sit around looking sculptural. Instead, they clank. They ring. Figures revolve amd gears mesh. They might more fairly be dubbed contraptions. The artist herself has an even better moniker for them: “mechanical confections.”

All the same, the pieces work as still sculptures. They possess an erector-set grace, with metal lines and a sense of design that echoes styles of the middle 20th century.

All sorts of odds and ends make up these crazy contraptions, and Kamentsky explains on her website that she finds many of them on the street in her industrial Boston neighborhood. Tiny toy figures pop up next to typewriter keys, and in one, a mesh screen from a French press serves as a gear to enable the action.

Drop by Kamentsky’s exhibition, The Engagement Party, at Northampton’s William Baczek Fine Arts, and you’ll find yourself playing. Most of the pieces have an unassuming handle. Turn it, and things happen. Often, a lot of things. In many cases, several actions unfold at different speeds. There are immediate rewards, but cranking along for 30 seconds often brings even more action into play. It’s as if the gallery has become a place for adults to nod along and go “hmmm” while surreptitiously indulging childish delight. Little wonder when you discover that Kamentsky used to be a toy designer (you may well have heard of her game Chicken Limbo).

It’s hard to imagine how Kamentsky plans her mechanical confections; the parts must work together to produce action while working on purely visual terms. Kamentsky writes, “I do very little sketching before beginning a piece. I usually start with an idea about motion and progress from there by finding objects and forms that best fit together.”

She explains that her father is a scientist and inventor, and that as a child she joined him in cobbling together interesting machines from old toys and parts.

For Kamentsky, these fascinating adult playthings are only half the equation. She also makes animated films. Much like her sculptures, her films seem to hail from an earlier aesthetic era. It’s hard to say what exactly conjures an air of nostalgia in terms of cartoon style, but clearly, Kamentsky does just that. Her characters, like Ren and Stimpy or Rocky and Bullwinkle, exist in a bright, fast-paced world full of whimsy. The action is perfectly suited to the medium—the improbable is just as likely to happen as the probable.

There’s a great sense of whimsy in her work, which includes everything from experimental shorts to ads for Sperry. Her experimental shorts work quite differently from the character-based animation, but they are fascinating in their own right. In one, she mixes glimpses of non-animated people into her drawn world.

Kamentsky’s work is often small in scale, contained in its contours, but within those confines all sorts of complexity blooms. It’s as if her work offers a glimpse into a busy, lively mind.

The exhibition is concurrent with the work of another busy mind, that of Nanette Vonnegut (her show, All Things in Paradise, is discussed on this week’s Arts Page). The two artists are a great pairing—Vonnegut’s still life of a clown shoe, for instance, makes perfect sense near all that whirring, clanging and bell-ringing.

Gina Kamentsky, The Engagement Party and Nanette Vonnegut, All Things in Paradise: Through April 20, William Baczek Fine Arts: 36 Main St., Northampton, (413) 587-9880.

Author: James Heflin

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