Simon Rodia was an Italian immigrant construction worker who, over the course of 33 years, built 17 structures, some as high as 99 feet, on an empty lot in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Made of everything from steel rods to bed frames, soft drink bottles and seashells, these towers were at one point considered the work of a madman, and regularly vandalized by neighborhood kids.
Now theyre a world famous example of design and structural integrity, and are on the register of National Historic Landmarks.
The Watts Towers are, in fact, a perfect example of Farfetched: Mad Science, Fringe Architecture and Visionary Engineering, the title of the latest show at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design. The exhibit, says museum director Roger Manley, is really focusing mostly on outsider artists, like Rodia, who will be represented by photos and a scale model of the Towers.
(These artists) might have thought of themselves as being scientific, adds Manley, and if you look at world famous scientists, almost all of them, at one time or another, were considered crazy. From Newton to Einstein, anyone who thinks outside the box risks being told that what theyre doing is impossible or stupid. This is outsider art that is scientific.
Its also art that is outrageous, funny, crazy, whimsical, and everything in between. Included in the exhibit is a massive perpetual motion machine made by an Alabama craftsman, and a Purr generator, a vibrating bed you can lie on which, says its maker, causes you to purr with delight. Theres also a wooden doomsday computer, which allegedly computes when the end of the world will occur, but was actually used in a fraudulent money-making scheme. And theres a social landscape painting machine, tubes of paint and a canvas attached to a bicycle, which when pedaled, causes the paint to flow and create art.
Sure, its wacky stuff, but as The Watts Towers show, what once was thought bizarro could eventually be considered great art, or even have real world applications. And that, says Manley, who also co-curated the show (with Tom Patterson), is exactly the point. Im more interested in the kind of shows where youre not quite sure what youre going to end up with, where you start with an idea and sort of see where it leads, he says.
That idea being, in this case, that you can never say never when it comes to the human imagination. The exhibit, says Manley, is sort of a map of human endeavor or desire, to be able to envision things. You can look back at things that were once considered science fiction, like television, and then you look at what people are still dreaming about, like time travel and maybe we wont be quite so eager to relegate (the things in the exhibit) to the crazy world.