Visual Arts

“Artificial Agents: The Robot Art of Brian Kappel” Combines Bots With Vintage Posters at After Hours Gallery

What's old really is new again. We've seen the resurgence of burlesque, bell-bottom jeans and the monsters of our childhood (via pop culture vehicles such as the HBO series True Blood and Seth Grahame-Smith's novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Portland-based artist Brian Kappel capitalized on two recently revived trends — robots and vintage art posters — for his solo exhibit "Artificial Agents," currently on display at After Hours Gallery in Phoenix. Kappel's art is clever and compelling. The whole family will enjoy it, and the propaganda references will sail right over your 10-year-old's head.

Take Bastard Rat, for example. Modeled after a vintage advertisement, this mock billboard for Tin Man Pest Control depicts an ominous black robot sporting a metal funnel cap, à la The Wizard of Oz, above a rat with Xs for eyes. The slogan reads "no heart, no problem." I laughed so hard that my eyes watered. But underneath the humor, there's an insidious message. Kappel has created a robot-dominated world in which the human attribute of compassion is non-existent. Sound familiar? Lefty Lucy, in which a sexy girl-bot poses for the naughty "All Chrome Revue," and Loose Lips, Kappel's robot-era take on the Nazi posters (which encouraged silence through intimidation), are two other sardonic standouts.

While the propaganda-style paintings shine, Kappel's graphic works look like rejects from the children's section at Ikea. Think primary-colored close-ups of jovial animated creatures like those in the 2005 animated flick Robots. Wooden sculptures laser-etched with skull, flame, and robot designs are cute but not nearly as endearing as Kidrobot's Munny figures. We blame it on design. Square hunks of wood with no mouth or eyes don't make for an exciting robot, whether you're 13 or 30.

"Artificial Agents" is worth seeing, if just for the propaganda pieces. Kappel would've done well to pare down the wildly differing styles, but then again, this is his first gallery exhibit. He's like a child with too many crayon drawings and not enough refrigerator space to show them all. Like Kappel's art, that's something the kid in all of us can appreciate.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden