Alan Rath’s groundbreaking art mixes electronics with traditional sculpture

CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / STEVEN ROSEN / SEP 7, 2016 12 PMAlan Rath works on one of his sculptural pieces in his Oakland, Calif. studio.Alan Rath works on one of his sculptural pieces in his Oakland, Calif. studio.PHOTO: KLAUS TILLMAN

(Note written Dec. 11, 2020: This 2016 story was posted in remembrance of Alan Rath, who passed away on Oct. 27, 2020 at age 60. — SR)

Alan Rath, acclaimed for his art combining sculpture with computer-animated still photographs of body parts, has a provocative view on the barrier between humans and machines.

It’s permeable.

“Machinery is evolving and becoming more lifelike as it becomes more complex,” he says by phone from his Oakland, Calif. studio. The Cincinnati-born artist, whose work is in the collections of many art museums, will have a show of New Sculpture at West End’s Carl Solway Gallery from Friday through Dec. 23. 

“As it does, it exhibits all these behaviors that are sort of lifelike. I feel, in a way, things like telephones are extensions of the body — they’re not isolated objects out there. They’re just like the way we grow hair. Our hair is dead, but we grow it and it helps us. Telephones are extensions of us. In my view they are part of us.” 

(According to Wikipedia, the only ‘living’ portion of hair is in the follicle. The visible shaft is considered ‘dead.’)

Rath, as he describes it, is interested in “the machine that has awareness.” And early in his career, he found a brilliant way to symbolize that. 

He built sculptural armature that held small liquid-crystal display (LCD) screens on which an eye, especially, or other such sense- or perception-related parts as a mouth or hands, “communicated” with the viewer through subtle movements. 

He designed and built every aspect of each piece. It was new media, but it was also old — you were supposed to admire the formal characteristics of the entire piece, just like a more traditional Alexander Calder or David Smith sculpture. 

“The eye is such a symbol of consciousness,” Rath says. “So putting an eye in sculpture is creating this entity that has awareness. I was interested in how motion can be encapsulated in a (computer) program. Over the years they’ve become more complicated, but the only noticeable difference is that early on they didn’t blink and now they do.”

Less than 10 years after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in electrical engineering, he was in the Whitney Biennial and had a traveling solo show organized by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. 

His work caused a sensation.

With time, widening interests and technological change, his purview has broadened, and now he has such different work as robotic “feather” sculptures without screens. The Solway show’s 11 pieces include one of his “Running Man” sculptures, which have been programmed to change their on-screen movements at different times over the course of years.

Growing up in Anderson Township, Rath took quickly to making things — he credits his mother, who could weave, sew and paint, with encouraging him. 

“I was doing electronics when I was 14-15,” he says. “But the things I wanted to do physically took me a lot longer to figure out. To become a machinist and use the lathe just took me longer.

“Electronics are so much more conceptual,” he continues. “It’s mathematical, where mechanical construction is very physical. I love the difference between them and both are very enjoyable, but electronics somehow I took to a lot earlier.

“My parents early on got me a subscription to Popular Electronics, and my father on Saturday would drive me across town to the only electronics-parts distributor in Cincinnati in the day. It was really hard to buy a transistor in 1974.”

Rath now realizes that what he wanted to build as a teenager was “basically art,” but he never thought about it that way then.

His first Solway show was in 1990, but his relationship with the Solway family goes back much further. Rath’s family lived close to Carl Solway’s home in Anderson Township, and he and Michael Solway — now the gallery’s director — were childhood friends. As teens, they also took a keen interest in Rock music. 

In 1972, Solway took Rath to his first Rock concert — Jethro Tull performing the conceptual Thick as a Brick album at Cincinnati Gardens. That revelatory concert experience is the basis for the centerpiece of the New Sculpture show, 2012’s “Bostock.”

It consists of five screens, each displaying a hand. Through sign language, the hands spell out the lyrics to the album’s single song, “Thick as a Brick.” The band’s composer, Ian Anderson, had originally claimed that an 8-year-old boy, Gerald Bostock, wrote the poem upon which the lyrics were based. 

But there’s more to “Bostock” than nostalgia for a favorite old album. 

“The Rock concerts I went to as an early teenager were the first time I saw what you could do with power of electronics,” Rath says. “That concert was a traveling show completely enabled by massive amounts of electronics — both for the sound and the lighting. I was really intrigued by that. It was my early opportunity to see that kind of machinery.”

Of course, you’re not going to get all that background from just looking at the piece. But that’s OK with Rath; he’s fascinated by “layers of information” that can increase meaning yet are hard for any one person to know right away.

“The piece is kind of deliberately obscure,” he says. “You know it’s signing, so you think there is a message there. But what is the message? I’m interested in the fact there is so much information out there, it’s hard to begin to understand.”

Just as he believes the human and the mechanical intermingle in the contemporary world, he also thinks art and science are closer than many believe.

“The whole fields of art and science are very similar, and it’s strange there’s such a huge gulch between them,” he says.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s