Sculptures that create smiles

Steve Gerberich delights in seeing others enjoy his whimsical, interactive works, now on exhibit at Port Discovery.

January 03, 1999|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

This constitutes a bucolic farm scene for Steve Gerberich:

In the barn stands a motorized bovine with a bugle for an ear, sneakers for feet, and a flyswatter for a tail. It stands astride the remnants of an exercise bicycle with pedals rotating, while the two springs that represent udders move up and down over a couple of milk bottles containing coins. Meanwhile, overhead, birds flap wings made of open suitcases.

``Cash Cow'' and ``Flying Geese'' are two of 16 ingenious and endearing sculptures by Gerberich exhibited in the Meyerhoff Gallery at Port Discovery, the children's museum that opened last week.

Using found objects, Gerberich, 38, makes sculptures-in-motion: some motorized, some propelled by a hand crank. He's pursued this art form since the mid-1980s, when he began showing his works in the front window of an empty building in lower Manhattan. They got noticed, and in little more than a decade his art has been exhibited from Chicago to New York to London and entered collections from San Francisco to Trouville, France.

Mike Yankovich, director of exhibits and programs at Port Discovery, learned of Gerberich's delightful sculptures last year and invited him to create an exhibition for the children's museum opening; the show will be here through May.

``There are really good interactive elements,'' says Yankovich. ``And people can recognize common things in them - ends of brooms, table legs, a tennis racket, a pedal from a bike. They've been put with other things in imaginative ways, so when when you see them again you think of them differently.''

In Gerberich's experience they appeal to all ages. ``People react on different levels,'' he says. ``Kids don't recognize parts as well as adults, but they're fascinated with movement and gestures.''

There's plenty to look at in the Gerberich exhibit, called ``Extraordinary Art from Everyday Parts: The Imaginative Sculpture of Steve Gerberich.'' There's ``Birdhouse,'' with birds' wings made of parts of vegetable steamers; ``Hardware Hawkeye,'' a bird with license plates for wings; ``Red Snapper,'' a fish made from the front part of a tractor with two dustpans for a tail; and ``Woody,'' a trombone player with a body made of table parts.

The creator of all this has an open face that radiates the enthusiasm of youth, with a smile as wide as the Midwestern plains and a shock of hair that falls over his forehead to give him an aw-shucks look reminiscent of Will Rogers.

He grew up in the small Iowa town of Waukee, pop. 3,000, where collecting things and putting them together came naturally. ``My grandparents always collected objects, and my parents the same,'' he says. ``My father's a carpenter, a person who can figure out and fix anything.''

His older brother, Tim, became an artist and, Gerberich says, was the genius in the family. Following in his footsteps, Gerberich took art at the University of Northern Iowa. He concentrated in photography, but what he photographed was found objects assembled into what he calls ``environments.''

By the time Gerberich graduated in 1983, brother Tim had been in an automobile accident that seriously damaged his brain and his art-making capacity. ``He could still make incredible pen and ink drawings,'' Gerberich says. ``But it's a miracle, because about half of his brain was removed.'' The tragedy was an impetus to Gerberich. ``It inspired me to carry on,'' he says.

In 1985 he moved to New York, and while pursuing his art worked at various jobs. One of them was cleaning out an unoccupied building that had housed a printing company on Broome Street in the art district known as SoHo. He got permission to use the building's front window as a display space. Showing his sculptures there was much like putting them in front of a camera, but Gerberich thought they needed something more and began to motorize them.

He was on Broome Street for six years. In 1987 a collector from Germany bought one of the window pieces and flew Gerberich to France to install it in a house he owned in Trouville. In 1989 art critic Adam Gopnik wrote a piece about him in the New Yorker. In 1991 he was hired to create Bloomingdale's Christmas window display on Lexington Avenue that year. He's also done shows at Grand Central Station and Royal Festival Hall in London.

Now he has a 1,600-square-foot studio in Brooklyn in which he keeps the parts for his sculptures, and two barns in Iowa full of completed works.

One show leads to another. ``I did a show at the Des Moines Art Center,'' he says, ``and I sent out postcards, including one to Inventure Place [a creativity museum in Akron, Ohio] where Mike Yan-kovich had worked, and the card got forwarded to him and he called me.''

He spent a good part of 1998 at work for Baltimore exhibits. He also made two pieces for ESPN-Zone, the sports-themed entertainment center in the Power Plant.

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