The retrospective of Lin Emery's kinetic sculpture at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art is enchanting, full of movement and, in some cases, sound. The show will appeal to cerebral art lovers and delight the child in us as well as children themselves. (There are two works you can play with.)
Emery, 81, has had a successful career both with private collectors and corporate and public commissions in the United States and internationally, though she doesn't enjoy widespread name recognition beyond her home in New Orleans. There, it's hard to miss her work scattered throughout public parks and city streets.
This show, with 19 works, is small for a retrospective, but what it lacks in numbers is made up by its scope, which begins with her early works and continues to a new sculpture, Rondelet, in gleaming aluminum that rises 13 feet in the museum's lobby. (Note to donors: It would make a handsome addition to the permanent collection, sited on the terrace just beyond.)
Emery began as a figurative sculptor. She said, in an interview at the museum, that she realized she was more interested in making the armatures that would support her figures than the figures themselves. She began peeling back the surfaces to reveal the simple forms beneath, and an abstract artist was born.
Those early works from the 1950s are the least interesting in the show, but they're important in understanding the later ones that continue to be made of metal but take on a lightness of form and streamlined elegance.
She was in her 40s when she became interested in movement. The catalyst, she says, was an epiphanic moment at her kitchen sink when a spoon, balanced on a coffee cup, rocked back and forth as water dripped from the faucet. Prisoner from 1973 belies its grim title. Aluminum blocks, painted red, are arranged to suggest a figure (I thought it was a dog before reading the wall label). They move in tandem and separately, suggesting a struggle to rise from a kneeling position. It's powered both by a motor and magnets, an innovative combination Emery has mastered over the decades.
Alter Image from 1978 is more subtle in its movement. Three similar forms looking like a stylized well pump are sandwiched together but move to slightly different rhythms. As they rock gently back and forth, they project a shadow puppet on the wall behind them.
Emery began incorporating sound into her sculptures in the 1980s. Acolytes (1988-93) occupies a good part of the gallery with its four "figures" — fabric-shrouded rods topped by heads of polished metal with dangling metal pendants. Each is mounted on a wheel that rolls toward the viewer and is lowered as it approaches. The figure also sways and dips, turning the pendants into wind chimes. As with all of Emery's sculptures, their movements are repetitive but unsynchronized. They are clever and entertaining but even more artful in the way they move. I was reminded of contemporary choreography by artists such as Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp. And Emery doesn't use computers to design her sculptural dances; it's all done by manual experimentation.
Flower Drum lives up to its name. Large wooden pods shaped like petals open to a center of metal shapes emulating a flower's stigma and stamens. As the center rotates, the stamens pluck metal strings on the petals, producing an ominous-sounding background noise mitigated by the little metal prisms of the stigma that rattle more cheerfully.
Two interactive sculptures feature Emery's Kinesones, a word that combines "kinetic" and "sonant" (sound), pipes that the viewer activates to produce the sound. They're fun, a thinking person's xylophone.
The work that really showcases Emery's finesse is Katrina, created in 2005 after the devastating hurricane swept through her city. It's a small, exquisitely calibrated collection of moving parts that just barely miss each other as they swoop and swoon clockwise and then counterclockwise. It doesn't look like much more than an interesting assemblage of abstract shapes when it's at rest, which is like all the images you see here.
That's true of all art reproduction, though especially important with kinetic art. But you'll see that when you visit the museum. Which you will definitely want to do.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.