Rube Goldberg cartoon (Image via

Rube Goldberg cartoon (Image via

CHICAGO — Cartoonist Rube Goldberg (1883–1970) was best known for his depictions of complicated contraptions with far too many moving parts built to solve the simplest of problems. These “Rube Goldberg machines” appeared in his work, and were used as devices to poke fun at the roundabout nature of American bureaucratic and political systems in the post-World War II era. Rube Goldberg’s Ghost, a large group exhibition on view at Columbia College’s small Glass Curtain Gallery (through May 4) features work by more than 20 artists who may very well be Goldberg’s companions in that they, too, enjoy laborious machinations with political undertones.

Rube Goldberg

Rube Goldberg (Image via

The sprawling show features work by artists including Matthew Aron, Karen Bovinich, Fischli & Weiss, Joanne Greenbaum, Joseph Hersher, Taylor Hokanson, Industry of the Ordinary, Heidi Kumao, Mark Porter, and Graem Whyte. Rather than referring to the progenitor’s ghost, however, the exhibition should be called Rube Goldberg’s Spirit. No hauntings take place here; rather, each work of art, selected by curator Elizabeth Burke-Dain, suggests a way that Goldberg’s spirit lives on. The sheer amount of objects in this show at times feels overwhelming, like walking into a weird grandpa’s attic overloaded with rinky-dink gadgets, funny contraptions, and old Playboy magazines leftover from better, sunnier days. It’s an installation well worth diving into — if not for its modern-day take on political systems, then at least for its masturbation machines.

Betsy Odom, "Lawnchair" (2010) (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

Betsy Odom, “Lawnchair” (2010) (All photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

The spirit of Goldberg’s political commentary through his formal, mad scientist-esque machines is particularly relevant in the work of emerging Chicago artists Betsy Odom and Mark Porter. Odom’s subtle use of highly coded materials in “Lawnchair” and “Smokey Joe” (both 2011) confound approaches to objects typically found at big-box stores like Walmart and Target. Much like artist Caroline Wells Chandler, who queers craft and consumer culture materials in his work, which comments on how we use consumer culture objects to define ourselves, Odom uses materials to subvert meaning.

The artist’s “Lawnchair” is made of underwear elastic, tooled leather, and PVC. The artist stretches the elastic from mens’ underwear across a lawnchair frame, and coats the armrests with leather; in doing so, she makes this common, otherwise unimportant summer barbecue commodity a space for commentary on the gendered codes of a summer cookout — who else sits here but the griller, a dad, a son: a man. “Smokey Joe” is a small, unusable walnut-shaped hunk of wood in the shape of a barbecue that shrinks the supposed importance of grilling, removing its typical attachments of masculinity. Both sculptures reveal the social implications that accompany these otherwise seemingly unimportant commodity purchases.

Mark Porter, "Autohaemorrhaging Actuator" (2013)

Mark Porter, “Autohaemorrhaging Actuator” (2013)

Mark Porter exhibits “Autohaemorrhaging Actuator” (2013), a complicated contraption that, once activated by the viewer, performs the simple task of spewing out fluid, like a prey animal in defense mode. In what looks like a merging of a chemist’s lab and a hospital storage space full of unusable equipment, Porter arranges these variant objects together so that they shoot neon pink fluid onto a white wall and the gallery floor. The device is activated once a viewer steps near enough to it. Similar to a panicked skunk spraying its possible predator, Porter’s sculpture utilizes these same functions to create a merging of nature and machine. It’s a marriage Goldberg would have appreciated.

Michael Thompson sculpture at "Rube Goldberg's Ghost"

Michael Thompson, “Instructional Machine,” (2010)

Michael Thomspon’s masturbatory “machines” humorously utilize cranks. Inside what looks like an ornate clock, a crank winds up a miniature pin-up girl doll where the clockface should be. She gyrates her body as moving images appear on tiny televisions behind her, suggesting a sort of peeping Tom-meets-grandfather clock perversity. In another piece, a steel rectangle houses a black hand that grips a phallic-shaped wooden rod, sliding up and down as the viewer cranks it. Both works comment on the mechanical masturbatory activity that that has followed a culture of over-sexualized, emotionally loaded videos, images, texts, and quick pornography. What if we went back to an old-fashioned stance, crank and all? Would sexualized imagery look any different?

Moreover, Thompson’s work comments on the problematic, mechanical nature of our fascination with pornography and the way it almost automatically gets us off, reducing sexuality into pure process. Perhaps all attraction is, at some level, formulaic. Far from the mechanical nature of sex, Joseph Herscher’s video “The Page Turner” (2013) comes about as close to a Rube Goldberg comic as possible. In this video, the artist takes the viewer through a one-million-step contraption that includes dropping a few eggs, the scuttle of a hamster down some long wooden shaft, and coffee being boiled, just so that a single newspaper page may turn.

YouTube video

Joseph Herscher’s “The Page Turner” 

If Goldberg were alive today, surely he would have created a contraption-filled cartoon about the gay marriage debate. It has been winding its way around mainstream consciousness through the visible DOMA and Prop8 rulings, sidestepping the bigger issues of LGBT community for the one that most Americans more readily understand. This show, however, is already packed, both with issues and objects; at times it feels like an overstuffed Goldberg cartoon itself, especially when the majority of those works require a personalized touch by the viewer’s hand (when experiencing the more hands-on work on view this show, I suggest you use the hand you don’t masturbate with). Despite its density, through its critical approaches to sexuality, technology, and gender, Rube Goldberg’s Ghost does a good job of cleverly connecting the hip historical with the present-day political.

Rube Goldberg’s Ghost runs at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery (1104 S Wabash Ave, Chicago) through May 4.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...