Nostalgia is the prevailing sentiment in Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon, an exhibition of sculpture, video, paintings, and works on paper by 20 artists at the San Jose Museum of Art. For senior curator JoAnne Northrup, the word robot conjures the walking tin men of science fiction’s golden age, whose physical similarity to us (arms, legs, eyes, etc.) was essential to our embrace, and fear, of these in-our-image fantasies. These are the robots of our futuristic daydreams from days gone by, the machines that would one day deliver us from empty lives of domestic drudgery and toil — that is, if they didn’t zap us to death first with fire rays from the guns mounted in their titanium chests.

From the vantage points of the 1930s through the 1960s, the source years for much of the material in this exhibition, we live in a future that’s lousy with robots, eclipsing even the imaginations of the most caffeinated sci-fi writers and lurid B-movie producers of those eras. Turns out the future is a pretty dull place, at least as far as robots are concerned. “Mother’s Day is May 11,” an ad in 2008 reminds us, “Buy her a Roomba.” Is that the best we can do: A disc that randomly bumps around your living room floor, sucking up everything in its path, but “intelligent” enough not to vacuum itself down a flight of stairs? “We were promised robots,” muses artist Michael Salter in a gallery handout. Your Roomba, and the foreseeable iterations that are certain to follow it, will never be as endearing as a robot like Rosie, the loyal and devoted metal maid in The Jetsons. On the other hand, you’re never going to feel guilty about switching off your Roomba and hiding it away in a closet.

Indeed, Northrup’s exhibit is largely concerned with how we feel about robots like Rosie. To her credit, Northrup has not set out to explore how our lives have, or have not, been improved by things like Roombas. This almost complete apathy for the functional aspects of modern-day robots, let alone the tangible contributions they make to society, is one of the show’s many charms, and one of the main reasons why moving through the exhibition is so much fun.

Clayton Bailey’s work epitomizes the sense of play that permeates the galleries. His robots, assembled primarily from found metal objects, can be sly, cute, and funny, sometimes all at once. Through his choices of proximity and proportion, Bailey has an almost shamanistic ability to animate the inanimate. In his hands, junk is somehow elegant, graceful, suave, and, in the case of Robot Pet, adorable. Just as the visionaries of the ’30s-’60s delivered the best robots they could scrounge from the corners of their minds, Bailey builds the best robots he can conjure with parts from the scrap yard. Which is not to say that Bailey is only a skilled scavenger. A few rooms away from Robot Pet and its masters, Beautybot and Boybot, a trio of Bailey’s gun-metal-blue ceramic robot torsos are evidence that this guy can breath cartoon life into practically anything, even a clay teapot.

Another standout is Michael Mew, whose collage-like paintings of toy robots wreaking havoc on whatever stands in their wind-up way are given a glossy, clear-resin sheen. Despite Mew’s obvious infatuation with surface, his paintings invite us inside to explore a seductively foggy world of pulp science-fiction and advertising (or, perhaps, advertising-like) images.

Compared to other artists in the show, Mew and Bailey are well represented, with four and six pieces respectively (Bailey also lent the exhibition a number of vintage toy robots from his personal collection). I could have done with at least that many works by Feric (Eric Feng), whose blueprint-like drawings of a bird and a benign raptor-like creature are superb works of draftsmanship. At first we are content to simply drink in the artist’s skill at rendering a wing or section of muscle, but then we notice that Feric’s lovely animals are actually little robots, whose innards are filled with low-tech, probably magic-powered gears. A short animated film of Feric’s winsome creations plays next to these two quiet sketches. I left this show longing for much more.

At the other end of the scale spectrum is Michael Salter’s Giant Styrobot. When I first heard this object described in a radio ad (I think it was something about the world’s largest robot made out of recycled styrofoam, but I may have gotten the “world’s largest” part wrong), I was prepared for a gimmick. But I have to say, this is a pretty good gimmick. Reaching almost to the top of the two-story vaulted ceiling of the museum’s tallest gallery, Giant Styrobot is surprisingly well rendered for something made out of discarded packing materials. Its composition is patient and subtle, as true to itself as the best Deborah Butterfield horse made of scraps of metal or found sticks. Beneath this gentle giant, children visiting the gallery sit at tables piled with Legos so they can make robots of their own. No doubt they too will one day be disappointed when it dawns on them that their childhood visions will probably never see the light of day, but it’s good to see a museum encouraging its young patrons to dream.

Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through October 19, 2008. 110 South Market Street, 408-271-6840. For more information visit sjmusart.org.

Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon 7 May,2008Ben Marks

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