Arts & Theater

A witty and deep showcase of Jewish artists' contributions to California art history

Original curating, while not endangered, is becoming increasingly rare. It is becoming common practice for museums to program curatorial set pieces: canned exhibitions that are pre-packaged for travel.

What plays in Cincinnati plays in Miami, plays in Dallas, plays in Boulder. One size fits all.

“Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists,” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, however, is a gem of indigenous curating. Wittily conceived, deeply researched and skillfully designed, it presents sixteen Jewish artists whose work directly or tangentially responds to ideas of mechanisms.

The museum has long wanted to showcase the contributions of Jewish artists to the art history of California. To that end, Chief Curator Renny Pritikin, in collaboration with Mark Dean Johnson of San Francisco State University, has organized a succinct, yet inclusive show of artists living and dead, known and unknown, who in unexpected ways have enriched our cultural discourse.

Extensive research on the hundreds of Jewish artists who have made an art historical impact revealed a surprising nucleus of multifaceted art that addresses machines, instruments, and contraptions.

Using Rube Goldberg (1883-1970), the eponymous cartoonist, engineer, inventor and San Francisco native as the touchstone, the curators conceived a unique work of scholarship -- poetic, delightful, conceptually rich, and visually stunning.

The show opens with a suite of Goldberg’s ink drawings, or cartoons, about the phenomenally complicated inventions of Professor Lucifer Gongonzola Butts, A.K. Goldberg’s graphic odes to such phenomena as chain reactions, gravity, and spontaneous combustion are the two dimensional equivalents of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp trying to get a plate of spaghetti across a raucous dance floor in “Modern Times.”

Goldberg’s ludicrous inventions implicate the seductive, yet alienating traps of technology and what can happen when we try to build a better mousetrap.

The intricate and finely crafted work of Oakland-based sculptor Bella Feldman gives a slightly Gothic twist to her notions of sculpture as a device or mechanism. “Dark Noise” evokes an enlarged and elaborate Victorian paperweight.

A finely etched glass globe encases a contrivance composed of tiny metal gears and a funnel. The piece suggests a navigational instrument, such as Captain Nemo might have used. It is laden with nostalgia and seems to enshrine science and measurement within an eternal bubble.

Groundbreaking Bay Area conceptual artist Howard Fried, known for his famously exacting fabrication procedures, reproduces his 1989 installation piece, “watershed D.” Composed of wall text and a door, it confounds our curiosity, and by evincing the frisson of a dilemma, functions as a subversive piece of interactive psychology.

If one opens the door to see what is behind it, the wall text flips over to a blank side, thwarting our ability to read the deeply engrossing text. In looking for answers, we encounter more questions.

Sculptors Bernie Lubell and Sheri Simons both construct elaborate kinetic sculptures that require viewer participation to activate their mechanisms. Lubell’s “Theory of Entanglement,” is a floor to ceiling wooden knitting machine.

Knitting begins when two people start pedaling. The pedaling causes the cumbersome gears to move and the clunky wheels to turn. Five minutes of vigorous pedaling yields about one knitted inch. The work argues for collaborative social practices, while needling technological determinism.

Simon’s wondrous “After All” is her recreation of a phonautograph, the 19th century invention of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville. Like the original device, vibrations generated by one’s voice activate Simon’s piece.

The large wooden sculpture is every inch a gawky contraption, yet curiously it generates an astonishingly beautiful graph charting a depiction of sound waves. Vocal vibrations trigger a stylus that is delicately dragged across a huge soot-covered drum translating voice into quavering trails of gently erased lines.

Noted Davis ceramic sculptor Annabeth Rosen addresses the idea of the machine through her process of cobbling together individual ceramic forms, as well as broken scraps, fragments and false starts.

“Wave II” is an imposing pile of white globular tubes drizzled with black glaze, giving the appearance of calcified seaweed raked up from an oil spill. Seemingly hauled up en masse, the forms are wired together and slapped onto a rectilinear steel support, like writhing refugees from a maritime disaster. The work is a massive embodiment of roiling gestural energy.

Quirky, inventive, even visionary forms evoking dystopian scenarios of technology run amok are represented in the works of Judith Belzer, Carol Bernard, Edward Biberman, Boris Deutsch, Miriam Dym, John Gutmann, Bruce Handelsman, Ned Kahn, Richard Kamler and Irving Norman. This brilliant show is not to be missed.

CONTRAPTION: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists

When: Through July 29

Where: The Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco

Tickets: $5- $14 415-655-7800