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Art People: master manipulators

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Last year Patrick McCarthy and a couple of pals were playing around with electric motors, attaching pens and markers to them to see what they'd create on paper. Says McCarthy, "One of us said, 'How about having a gallery show with these machines? We'll let them draw and paint and stuff and then we'll auction off the work.' We all went ha, ha, ha. And then we went and did it."

That exhibit, called "Deus ex Machina," took place on the autumnal equinox and was the last

hurrah at an industrial loft on Byron that McCarthy had transformed into a gallery and theater. Over the summer he'd been regularly staging art exhibitions and shadow puppet plays in the 1,100-square-foot space.

"I invented 3-D shadow puppetry," McCarthy claims. Traditional shadow puppetry is an ancient, primarily Indonesian art form in which minuscule puppets are manipulated behind small screens for intimate audiences. McCarthy--who occupies himself as a painter, animator, computer programmer, theater producer, and gallery manager--founded Rubber Monkey Puppet Company in 1993 and the next year came up with a projection system that makes the shadows seem to leap into the audience. "I like to have ten-foot-tall shadows," McCarthy says. "We're probably the biggest change in shadow puppetry in a couple of thousand years."

For eight years McCarthy put on shows at galleries, coffee shops, and bars around town. Once he had the loft, however, he built a stage that stretched from wall to wall and installed rows of folding chairs. He hung up huge fabric panels to form a white screen in front of an orchestra pit and provided each audience member with a pair of 3-D glasses. The shows consistently sold out, but he knew it couldn't last--the lease was to run out in September. So he and his friends started planning the "Deus ex Machina" closing party.

"A lot of the people involved in the exhibit were engineers and inventors--people who don't make art per se," McCarthy says. But the idea appealed to them. "They thought, 'I can't paint, but I can build a machine that paints.'"

Laddie Odom, a multimedia producer, used his laptop to program buglike machines equipped with brushes that leave trails of latex paint. Matt Marsden and Drew Ziegler refashioned toys into a playpen full of ink- and paint-armed minions that crawl across art paper, their random meanderings creating pictures.

"It was awesome to watch," McCarthy says. "The toys would get into little orgies and then break up. One might get stuck in a corner and then another might bump it and free it. It all sounded great--whirring and whizzing and clicking." One of the works created by Marsden and Ziegler's toys hangs

in McCarthy's living room. It looks like the product of a collaboration between Jackson Pollock and a kid with a Spirograph.

"The whole show was like a robot circus," McCarthy says. "People couldn't stop themselves from going through our boxes of parts and toys and starting to make things. One guy found an old fan and said, 'Can I just lay this down on paper and pour paint in it while it's running?' I said, 'Yeah!' He said, 'I've never done anything like this before.' But you get a roomful of machines going at it and suddenly it's OK for you to make art."

Eight pieces were auctioned off that night--more than had sold at any of McCarthy's previous exhibits. He soon started looking for a space to hold a second installation. When he discovered that the Peter Jones Gallery was available in March and April, "It just so happened the opening date would come right after the vernal equinox. That's got to be good luck."

In the months since the first show the artists and inventors have become more sophisticated in their designs. One-named kinetic sculptor Neville's Boxes That Blow Kisses, for example, is an army of 35 eight-inch-tall automatons with mechanical arms. Their rhythmic, asynchronous clacking would make Philip Glass feel at home.

The show, also called "Deus ex Machina," opens on Friday, March 22, with a free reception from 7 to 11 PM and runs Friday and Saturday evenings through April 20 at 1806 W. Cuyler. Silent auction bids on the machines--which will change from week to week--and their artwork may be submitted throughout the run. Rubber Monkey, in conjunction with the Mammals theater company, will present the shadow puppet play Moxon's Master--adapted from the Ambrose Bierce short story about a murderous machine--on opening and closing nights; the band Crepusculous and DJ Bosko will also perform opening night, and other entertainment will be featured throughout the run. Call 773-472-9723 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Audrey Cho.

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