The other stuff

Machines with Magnets’ Museum of Small Finds
By GREG COOK  |  October 22, 2008

NOT SEPARATED AT BIRTH: Kendra Plumley’s Siamese skulls.

The apparent inspiration for the Museum of Small Finds at Machines with Magnets (400 Main Street, Pawtucket) is a Renaissance cabinet of wonders — odd collections of art, artifacts, and natural history specimens that were precursors to today’s museums — and freak shows. In recent decades, as museums have grown ever more like children’s activ-ity centers and less dusty and strange, artists and curators craving the old halls of mystery have started creating their own.

The godfather of this sort of art is David Wilson, who opened the Museum of Jurassic Technology in a Los Angeles storefront in 1988. Its treasures include a teensy sculpture of Disney’s Goofy, an ant with a parasitic spike sprouting from its head, artifacts telling the tale of a failed bridge builder, and a human horn. Or so they say. The Musée Patamé-canique in Bristol, with its wondrous machines, is the most prominent local manifestation. These institutions transport you to an alternate reality, much like this one, but that raises questions about who gets to define what the truth is, what history is, what is official, what is real.

The Museum of Small Finds is presenting  “Lo! A Collection of Secreted Tales and Objects of Wonder” through October 31. Curators Lauren Holt and Ken Linehan have collected work by 18 New England artists. The exhibit stretches toward a mild weirdness with things like Kendra Plumley’s pair of gold Siamese-twinned skulls, Jocelyn Prince’s shelves filled with wiggly pocked panes of glass, and Jen Raimondi’s tondo arrangements of hair, plants, bones, little skulls, and eyes.

Susannah Strong’s Thinking Caps look like bird cages (one includes a swing) to strap atop your head. Their elaborate and specific construction sticks in my mind. Mark Domino’s Caustic includes a light that shines through a wavy but apparently clear pane of glass and projects the outlines of a skull onto the wall behind — as if it was haunted.

Your tolerance for such play will determine whether you willingly suspend your disbelief or if everything begins to feel fussy, precious, twee. I went back and forth.

Many of the works are paired with loopy tales filled with mysteries and proper nouns and astounding coincidences and a lot left unsaid. Pippi Zornoza carved a chintzy-looking wooden clock with brilliant, elaborate, delicate interlace patterns of birds and trees and flowers. It’s paired with the story of a 16th-century clock maker whose creation supposedly appeared from a parallel dimension running at a faster speed.

Stephen Brunelli’s Vehicle is a crazy contraption cobbled together from a doll, ironing board, thermos, fan, garden tools, and maybe plaster. A sign says the thing was discov-ered by a Soviet soldier in Japan around World War II and shipped back to Russia. But it originally came from Tibet, by way of China. Then it was sold at auction in 1992, and bought by the soldier who discovered it.

Delia Kovac screenprinted charming line drawings on wood planks that depict Providence buildings associated with the turn of the 20th-century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a neat twist on the mostly made-up flights of fancy here. Kovac taps real, important, but often overlooked facts. They feel like just the beginning of a buried alterna-tive history waiting to be uncovered.

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