Farfetched: Mad Science, Fringe Architecture and Visionary Engineering

Gregg Museum of Art and Design at N.C. State University

Through April 26

I was born during humanity’s first visit to the moon. As a kid, this coincidence was significant to me. I was certain that I was destined to go into space when I grew up. I even made a detailed cardboard spaceship with dials and gauges scavenged from machines and lights that really blinked.

One thing I didn’t believe is that the ship would actually take me to space. This distinguishes me from the visionary artists whose work is collected in Farfetched: Mad Science, Fringe Architecture and Visionary Engineering at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at N.C. State. Curated by Gregg director Roger Manley and Winston-Salem art critic Tom Patterson, almost every work depicts or yearns for utopian realms in which the artist has a place. To these artists, those fanciful destinations were real, and their creations were meant to take them there.

This makes Farfetched as lonely as it is fantastic. The biographies of the artists might break your heart a few times. Bipolar episodes, hallucinations, PTSD, incarcerations, family tragedies, extreme povertynot every artist here was shaped or broken by these kinds of events, but the works of those who were become more difficult to look at when you learn the backstory.

It’s a visually and emotionally intense show. The paintings and drawings are frantically dense and detailed, and often diagrammatical. The sculptures have been assembled with either that same frantic energy or with almost inhuman devotion or precision.

However, it’s important to remember that the aesthetic qualities of each work aren’t necessarily the result of aesthetic choices. Almost every piece in Farfetched was made for a purpose that had little to do with how it looked. Few were intended as works of art; many were found by others at the end of, or after, their creators’ lives.

Charles Dellschau’s colorful drawings of flying machines, which purportedly used an anti-gravity substance called “NB Gas” to fly, were recovered by a furniture dealer picking through a Houston landfill. If an art dealer hadn’t happened upon it, we’d never have had the opportunity to see Stephen Gessig’s fascinating “Inventor’s Box” full of crude diagrams of airships and a suicide machine.

Zebedee B. Armstrong’s “Future Predictor Array,” an arrangement of wooden boxes and devices scrawled with magic marker numbers and dates, infests a corner of the gallery. The Georgia box factory worker made this calendric computer to predict the exact date of the end of the world. Armstrong even had an entrepreneurial bent, soliciting investments from his neighbors who would receive a payout the day after the world ended. This was never intended to appear in a museum; Armstrong made it to use it.

Architectural drawings that would have made Piranesi weep come from Achilles Rizzoli, a draftsman for a San Francisco architecture firm. His gigantic cathedrals and towerswhich he termed “Kathredals”are meticulously drawn in Beaux Arts style on poster-sized paper. They appear whimsical at first glance. But once you start reading the labels on the naves and altars of these churches, a somber mania surfaces. Several eulogize his mother, and in another Rizzoli translated a young woman whom he admired into a building that appears to unite heaven with Earth. Although Rizzoli showed this work to her, understandably creeping her out, he kept a lifetime of such drawings secret from virtually everyone who knew him.

Farfetched offers humorous notes, too. “Radionics” socks with stitched crop circle drawings on them claim to manipulate energy patterns to prevent diseases for the wearer. Operate the dials on the “Abram’s Oscilloclast” box and a negative electrical charge offers health benefits to whomever attaches the electrodes to his or her head. Oscilloclast inventor Albert Abrams, by the way, was the director of clinical medicine at Stanford University at the beginning of the 20th century.

Still other works are genuinely inspirational. A pristine model of Simon Rodia’s famous Watts Towers sits beneath a photograph of the Los Angeles wonderland with pedestrians in the foreground for scale. The Italian handyman’s re-bar and concrete structures look a lot like plenty of other architectures in Farfetchedmost notably Sylvain Corentin’s breathtaking, 7-foot “‘Anarchitectural’ Rome Tower”but the Watts Towers gathered a community around them when the city tried to tear them down in the mid-1950s. Artists and engineers alike defended the structures, which are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Several North Carolina artists appear in Farfetched. Richard Brown, a Littleton florist, makes sci-fi sculptures in the back of his shop from the green foam and floral wire leftovers of the funerary displays he creates. Prompted by a near-death experience, his “Future Past” work is a collaboration with Jesus and documents episodes of futuristic military conflict in circular time.

Other North Carolina artists include Rocaterrania creator Renaldo Kuhler, a retired illustrator at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences whose imaginary world garnered a Gregg show unto itself in 2011; Asheville’s Sean Pace, whose drawing-machine sidecar documents a bike ride; and Nasher Museum of Art registrar Charles Carroll, whose miniscule carved cities would blow even Hayao Miyazaki’s mind.

Farfetched and Humanature, a show of Peter Goin’s unnatural nature photographs, are the last two shows at the Gregg in its current incarnation in NCSU’s Talley Student Center. Still a couple million dollars shy of the $7.5 million needed to break ground on a spacious new addition onto the side of the old chancellor’s residence, the museum will go into “museum without walls” mode for what Manley estimates will be two years after these shows close. Satellite shows are being planned during that interim at close-by venues such as NCSU’s African American Cultural Center and Meredith College.

In this entertaining show, Manley and Patterson remind us that plenty of our current technologies were considered insane when they were first conceived. Farfetched circa 1600 would have had Galileo’s notebooks in it. But the exhibition is also a reminder that imagination and madness share a border, and that that geography is both frightening and wonderful.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Daydream creations.”