“Plastic Smile” by Adam Hager (2014)
“Plastic Smile” by Adam Hager (2014)

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Maker culture may be remaking the world, but it isn’t necessarily making for a better art world. Tinkerers are transforming tech culture through grit and Arduino microcontrollers, but that moxie is a funky fit in contemporary art. Adam Hager, whose solo show “Between Fact and Fiction” just opened at Flashpoint Gallery, shows that sweat and know-how can push the physical boundaries for what’s possible in sculpture without really getting anywhere.

With “Labor Day” (2013), Hager links a baseball and baseball bat into a spiky morning star. “Slow Dance” (2014) is a variation on a Newton’s cradle—you know, one of those contraptions with clacking spheres that demonstrates the conservation of momentum—only he’s replaced the metal orbs with swinging sledgehammers. And so on: Most of Hager’s works are centered around sculptural one-liners that swap the gears of an understood mechanism with unexpected parts, but otherwise leave the whole intact.

“Between Fact and Fiction” might be more aptly named “From Garage to Gallery.” Hager’s materials are the stern stuff of the suburbs: baseball bats, hatchets, hedge clippers, step ladders, guitar pedals, all expertly whizzed and wired. There’s not much to complain about in terms of Hager’s execution, but his conceptualization leaves a lot to be desired.

Consider “Plastic Smile” (2014), perhaps the centerpiece of the Flashpoint show. The sculpture is a mannequin erected on a speaker stand, its back complemented by little music-box mechanisms, which line up like a spinal column. Twisting the tiny levers on any of these faux vertebrae plays a song, which viewers can then manipulate through an array of foot pedals that circles the sculpture. The piece reaches for a powerful narrative: the harrowing notion (truth?) that people are biologically determined, easily manipulated, and barely even individuals, right down to the songs that sputter from our souls. But that narrative only runs skin-deep in this piece, and unfortunately, the other sculptures in the show are spiritually vacant.

Hager’s work in this exhibit feels a lot like the displays in a children’s science museum: readable by anyone, sort of crude but also sort of techy, ultimately inoffensive. This doesn’t just apply to Hager, but to a lot of the artwork that comes from a techier place. Once upon a time, sculptors who wanted to make art with engines or programs or lasers needed to contract out the physical construction. Those tasks get simpler every day from a technical perspective; it hasn’t made art-making any easier, though.

It’s plain that Hager is handy. Executing a mechanically complex piece might come easily to him. But there’s as much poetry as process in making sculpture. I’m of the spiritual bent that believes that people can change and that expression can be practiced—that soul is learned. Hager’s got the making part down, but he needs to study up on the rest.

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