An art exhibit that is truly moving, at the Morris Museum

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Next time someone calls you an automaton, say thank you.

A new exhibit at the Morris Museum elevates repetitive machinery to an art form–a spinning, spooky, humorous, hypnotic art form.

“I want people to discover the fun in art again,” said Cleveland Johnson, the museum’s new director. “The art world shoots itself in the foot when it becomes too elitist and too exclusive.”

Curious Characters, which runs through June 2018, is the first installment of a four-year series called A Cache of Kinetic Art. These pieces are 21st-century progeny of the intricate, ornate 19th-century music boxes and automota in the museum’s permanent Guinness Collection.

'The Mesmerist,' at 'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘The Mesmerist,’ at ‘Curious Characters’ exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

A steely spider crawls crawls on a portrait. Metal bicycles spin round a curved rail. A mannequin finger points random insults at whoever pushes its button.

Some works you can crank, others you dare not touch.

One creation is so mesmerizing it’s actually called The Mesmerist.  Insert a coin and a door slowly opens to reveal a naughty-looking, scantily clad lady dangling a pendant, as creepy music wafts behind her.

It’s the work of Orange artist Lawrence Berzon, who progressed from comic books to paintings to dioramas.  He is among 16 artists in the exhibition, which showcases 27 pieces that invite repeated visits.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin:

Brett King of North Carolina with his Steam-Punk version of Apple's Siri, 'The Aetherologist,' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. King returns to lead the AutomataCon convention in may 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'The Mesmerist,' at 'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Lawrence Berzon with 'The Mesmerist' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Lawrence Berzon, right, with his sinister creation 'Reckoning,' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Chris Fitch with his 'Bird of Paradise,' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'Bird of Paradise,' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'Floribots' by Geoffrey Drake-Borckman, at 'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Geoffrey Drake-Brockman and companions traveled from Australia to display his 'Floribots' kinetic artwork at 'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'Floribots' by Geoffrey Drake-Borckman, at 'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Laura Zelaya of Argentina with her kinetic sculpture, 'To the Promised Land,' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Hans Dekker, left, and friends admire work at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
GOTTA HAND IT TO YOU, at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Visitor Maria Lupo reacts to exhibit at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
This character performs coin tricks at 'Curious Characters' exhibition, Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'Curious Characters' moving artwork at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Director Cleveland Johnson toasts opening of 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Cleveland Johnson (left), new director of the Morris Museum, at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' exhibition, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Museum Chairwoman Gerri Horn with kinetic artists Brett King and Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Michele Marinelli and Jere Ryders, curators of 'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Director Cleveland Johnson welcomes guests to 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Kinetic sculptor Chris Fitch at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'Floribots' by Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, at the Morris Museum through June 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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P1110194 - Brett King of North Carolina with his Steam-Punk version of Apple's Siri, 'The Aetherologist,' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. King returns to lead the AutomataCon convention in may 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Laura Zelaya of Argentina is represented by two delicate, hand-cranked kinetic sculptures. To the Promised Land depicts a man rowing his boat to a new life. Counterpoint is a dance between a man and woman who never quite connect.

Laura Zelaya of Argentina with her kinetic sculpture, 'To the Promised Land,' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Laura Zelaya of Argentina with her kinetic sculpture, ‘To the Promised Land,’ at opening reception for ‘Curious Characters’ at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I love to stage ideas and stories like a theater. I’m the director of their drama,”  Zelaya said of her wooden characters, at last week’s opening reception.

The daughter of artists, Zelaya grew bored with acting. Mechanical inventions intrigued her. “I was always very interested in how things work,”  she said.

In a show packed with curiosities, two inspired awe at the opening.

“I like birds,” Chris Fitch explained, after his half-ton Bird of Paradise spread its Tyvek wings and attempted to soar free of its whirring pulleys and gears.

Three years in the making, this tough-looking buzzard is so delicate that exhibition curators Michele Marinelli and Jere Ryder may fire it up only once a week. That’s the day you will want to bring the kids.

Chris Fitch with his 'Bird of Paradise,' at opening reception for 'Curious Characters' at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Chris Fitch with his ‘Bird of Paradise,’ at opening reception for ‘Curious Characters’ at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Performance art was imprinted on Fitch at a young age, as a puppeteer in his family’s traveling puppet theater. He also did some dancing. At Yale (located, as everyone knows, in Kinetic-cut), he studied film, followed by gigs in engineering and animation.

Still…gigantic mechanical birds?

“I’m an idiot!” the Arlington, Mass., artist said,  flashing an animated grin.

The other show-stopper is Floribots.

It’s a “garden” with 128 origami-style flowers that sprout, undulate, shimmy and dance in seemingly random patterns, triggered by audience motions captured by sensors.

“They all talk to each other,” Australian artist Geoffrey Drake-Brockman said of the faux-plants, operated with computer power equivalent to a couple of digital televisions.

Geoffrey Drake-Brockman and companions traveled from Australia to display his 'Floribots' kinetic artwork at 'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Geoffrey Drake-Brockman and companions traveled from Australia to display his ‘Floribots’ kinetic artwork at ‘Curious Characters’ exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Installation was challenging; a pair of nor’easters knocked out power at the Morris Museum for the better part of a week preceding the opening.

“Fortunately, the room has good natural light,” said Drake-Brockman, whose inspiration came from children’s paper toys variously known as “fortune tellers,” “cootie catchers” or “chatterboxes.”

He holds degrees in computer science and visual art. Automated projects like Floribots ideally marry the two, he figured.  The flower-bots can grow bored by repetitive crowd motion. No motion, and they may clamor for attention. Over-stimulation can make them chaotic. It’s an uncanny commentary on how we interact with technology.

“This sees you and reacts to you, as a technological ‘other,'” Drake-Brockman said. “It’s a process that’s under way in society. We all carry phones and talk to them.”

One can imagine Stephen King’s version of Floribots.  Fortunately, there was no need to run for our lives. Not on this visit, anyway.

“It’s quite happy now!” observed Drake-Brockman.

Curious Characters runs through June 20, 2018, at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morris Township. Admission: $7-$10. Call (973) 971-3700. Visitors can vote on their favorite automaton; the winner will be announced at AutomataCon, a convention for automaton fans at the Museum from May 18-20, 2018.

'Floribots' by Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, at the Morris Museum through June 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘Floribots’ by Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, at the Morris Museum through June 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
'Floribots' by Geoffrey Drake-Borckman, at 'Curious Characters' exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘Floribots’ by Geoffrey Drake-Borckman, at ‘Curious Characters’ exhibition at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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