Gizmo Art Task master: Paul Etienne Lincoln applies bits of physics and dashes of beauty to eclectic ideas, producing small, clever machines that do fun -- if not always practical -- things.

April 05, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

In Paul Etienne Lincoln's world, machines come to life, and what cannot be seen is often far more important than what can.

With the demeanor of Pee-wee Herman and the mind of Merlin, Mr. Lincoln is an artist with a love for wacky gadgets and a magical knack for producing them.

He plucks ideas from anywhere -- a medieval medical text, a garden, a dog-eared operatic score -- and retreats to his Manhattan "laboratory-boudoir." There, Mr. Lincoln stirs his thoughts with a bit of physics and a dash of beauty and cooks up what he calls "memory machines," or extraordinary creations that recall thoughts from days gone by.

Other wondrous things spring from his mind as well: small, clever gizmos programmed to perform highly specific and bizarre tasks.

One Lincoln invention at first seems to be an indoor shrine to singer Vera Lynn, but it can pour the perfect gin and tonic. A second is a collapsible seat for watching horse races that also can be used to peel an orange in one long coil. Still another is a folding desk with neat, retractable compartments made to hold objects that induce eloquence in would-be letter writers.

At the moment, however, Mr. Lincoln has no time to discuss his earlier work. He is standing in a dusty back room at the city's Conservatory trying to convince a silver gramophone named Rosa that she must pick up her arm and play.

She doesn't seem to be listening.

"I put in a set of values, and then they sort of take on a life of their own," he says of his machines and shakes his head.

The gramophone, which is named for the late Baltimore opera singer Rosa Ponselle, is part of a fantastical art installation Mr. Lincoln has been working on nonstop since the fall. Commissioned by the Contemporary, a museum that presents exhibitions at temporary sites, Mr. Lincoln's art will be on display at the Conservatory in Druid Hill Park through June 2.

Other works by Mr. Lincoln have taken years upon years: To imagine. To research. To invent.

"This one has been an almighty rush," he says. And the strain is beginning to show: Smudges of fatigue fan his eyes as he coaxes the cantankerous Rosa.

"There is something about music that you can't control. Some of it makes you feel shivery, and other music rolls off your shoulders," he says.

Though Mr. Lincoln invests extraordinary amounts of research in each project, many of his art objects are designed to work for a set period of time, then self-destruct, evaporate or die.

He ate part of one.

His best-known installation was powered by bees and snails (good with butter!) and was an homage to the power wielded by a long-dead king's mistress. It is called "In Tribute to Madame de Pompadour and the Court of Louis XV." Documents and images recording its existence were displayed last year at the Walters Art Gallery as part of the "Going for Baroque" exhibit.

"I sold Madame de Pompadour to a distributor of medical textbooks, an art collector who lives in London," says Mr. Lincoln. "He is a conceptual collector; he buys ideas. I was lucky to find him."

Criss-crossing art, science

Mr. Lincoln's unusual creations spring from a centuries-old tradition in which artists -- such as Leonardo da Vinci or Marcel Duchamp -- criss-crossed between science and art while creating devices that performed often mundane tasks. To Mr. Lincoln and his predecessors, the idea -- and the process involved in implementing it -- is far more important than the art object itself.

"The fact that these machines are working or not working is quite insignificant," he explains. "They primarily work in your head."

Still, the 36-year-old artist sighs and adds as he continues to work with Rosa, "I do love perfection."

A fondness for the intricate precision of smoothly running machines has always been with Mr. Lincoln. As a boy growing up in England, he suffered from severe asthma and often spent months in an oxygen tank, he says.

Missed school days coupled with dyslexia made it difficult for him to keep up in class, but as the son of an industrial architect, he filled his time easily with machines. At 7, the young Mr. Lincoln built a tape recorder, an accomplishment that he scoffs at now, saying: "I didn't know what I was doing, but I loved the idea of something winding and rewinding."

At 15, he began building a car that ran on nitrous oxide and linseed oil. "It had silk body work, and the engine was in front, like an early airplane," he says. (He worked on it for 10 years.)

Clearly the practice paid off. After earning art degrees at Croydon College of Art and later at the Royal College of Art in London, Mr. Lincoln moved to New York in 1986. Since then, his art has been exhibited in cities that includeDusseldorf, Vienna, London, Cambridge and New York.

Nonetheless, he says, much of his income comes from the sale of his wildly elaborate artistic inventions such as the amazing GinsMaid (available in a limited edition for about $4,500 at Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna).

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