“Very Cinematic Narrative” at the Manhattan Beach Art Center

William Sandell in his workshop. Photo

William Sandell in his workshop. Photo

Toys in the Attic

William Sandell’s kinetic sculptures evoke memories of times long gone

When we step inside William Sandell’s art studio, we’ve entered a space that feels partly like an eccentric showroom or museum and partly like a repair shop for vintage arcade machines. Or so it seems. Located in the Brewery complex on the east side of downtown L.A., Sandell’s enclave is where he’s been constructing squeaking, clanking, kinetic sculptures that give every appearance of having come down to us from the era of Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman.

A number of his pieces will soon be on display at the Manhattan Beach Art Center, along with the dramatic and enigmatic paintings of Cynda Valle. The exhibition, “Very Cinematic Narrative,” opens on Friday, Jan. 13, with an evening reception.

Movie sets big and small

The place where Bill Sandell made his mark is in the film industry. For some 40 years he’d worked as a production designer, and since the number of films he was connected with is well over 1,000, you’ve seen many of them, such as “Robo-Cop,” “Total Recall,” “The Perfect Storm,” and “Master and Commander.” The latter film, in fact, netted him an Academy Award nomination.

William Sandell. The carved skeleton is from the altar set in the film “Angels and Demons.” Photo

One of his personal favorites may not be as well known: “There’s one that didn’t do a lot of business but it’s a cult favorite called ‘Nothing But Trouble.’” It was directed by Dan Aykroyd, who starred in it along with Chevy Chase, John Candy, and Demi Moore. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a film,” Sandell says. “I’m very proud of that movie.” (It currently holds a nine percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but what the heck)

In some ways, Sandell’s involvement in the movie business grew out of a handful of events or things he was exposed to in his childhood. For instance, he loved to build with Lincoln Logs, had an Erector set, and was intrigued by the Rube Goldberg cartoons in the Sunday funnies, which he’d try and mimic by concocting gadgetry that turned wheels and pulled strings and then emptied buckets and other objects onto the heads of his brother and sister. One gathers he had an impish sense of humor and that his siblings somehow saw fit to spare his life.

But the real influences that would shape his life and career began with school field trips to the Natural History Museum: “Seeing the depth and the magic that were in the dioramas really stuck with me. Then I think a big influence was this Art of the ‘60s show they had when the L.A. County Museum of Art opened up. That must have been in ‘64, ‘65, but my parents got tickets to the show and took me there. Seeing three-dimensional art was massive for me at that point.”

On view were assemblages pieces ranging from “Back Seat Dodge ‘38,” by Ed Kienholz to “Monogram,” by Robert Rauschenberg. “Monogram”? Yeah, you know it: the taxidermied goat with a tire around its midriff.

William Sandell’s kinetic sculptures recall arcade games of decades past. Photo courtesy of Dallas Sterling

So right there we’ve got the ingredients: dioramas and the sudden revelation that art didn’t have to be confined to flat surfaces but rather could sprawl out all over the place. Now, sprinkle in a few years and see what grows…

“The movie sets that I have done, a lot of them cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions of dollars,” Sandell says. “Big sets. I’ve designed many huge things, had huge crews building Mars, building spaceships, building boats, but all of these sets we design are really boxes, if you look at it that way. Very expensive studio boxes. They’re all dioramas. Instead of a stuffed buffalo at the museum it’s George Clooney standing there in the box. But to me they’re all boxes, and I’m still stuck on the dioramas at our museum in Los Angeles.

“As a kid, I built shoeboxes that had a little depth to them. Dioramas. I put little flashlights behind them to light them. So I think I was born in the right city because, when you live in Los Angeles, you just gravitate towards the film business, there’s just no way around it. You walk down the street and you bump into somebody that’s in the film business, and they go, ‘Hey, what’re you doin’?’ ‘Nothing.’ And they go, ‘You want to work on a film?’ You go, ‘Yeah!’” Sandell laughs. “‘But we don’t pay anything.’ ‘That’s okay!’ And the next thing you know you’re in the film business, and that’s exactly the way it happened to me. So I see my boxes as little mini-sets. And I hope that there’s a little mini-drama, if you want to look.

Gears shift and wheels turn. They seem to have a hidden purpose. Photo courtesy of Dallas Sterling

“I fill them with little cues,” Sandell continues. “They’re more than just a bunch of gears and wheels turning. They look like they’re supposed to be doing something with the arrows and the graphics inside, but I defy you to figure it out, I really do.”

Mystery theater

There’s a residue of other influences as well that should be mentioned, one of which was the presence of L.A. Times art critic William Wilson who occasionally taught at Pierce Junior College in the San Fernando Valley. “He really opened up my eyes to a lot of art,” Sandell says. Perhaps more important was the exposure to so-called naive or outsider art or simply folk art, often made by people who weren’t part of any mainstream. Sometimes they holed themselves up in their rooms like Henry Darger and sometimes they bought a plot in the desert and decorated it with found objects. Such characters, however, could be a dying breed, just like the old seedy carnivals and freak shows.

William Sandell. His African hair salon sign collection is an example of the naive art that’s always appealed to him. “This is functional art with an interesting cultural side to it,” he says. “These particular signs are from Guinea and Ghana.” Photo

The latter have been banned for many years now. Today, of course, people would rather separate Siamese twins than sell them to Barnum & Bailey, thus nipping in the bud our voyeuristic instinct for Nature’s mishaps. But long ago, when Sandell was working on films in the South, “I went to a lot of good freak shows that still had people with different infirmities paraded around, and I was fascinated by that. I loved the barkers, I loved the midway, I loved the whole carney feel of seediness. I love the colors; I love everything about it.”

There was something about those strange circuses and traveling carnivals, an air of giddiness, of danger and secrecy, which Sandell has clearly tapped into:

“I want to build mysteries,” he says. “I want people to look at these and wonder about them: Why was this built, and for what purpose? I’ve said this from the first time I built one, that I had this dream. This was when I was 20. I loved the concept of someday someone finding my piece when I’m long gone, finding my piece in an attic, and maybe finding some new belts or rubber bands to put on it to try and get it to work; and wondering What is this for? I like that mystery. And it’s going to happen when I’m gone.”

Sandell knows they’ll be dispersed on day, but for the time being he’s concerned as to who acquires them and why.

“That’s the thing that I thought a lot about. I’ve sold about 30, 40 of my pieces over the years. At the Brewery here I talk a lot to my fellow artists, photographers and painters. They can make prints of all their works and sell their prints. I can’t make a print. When I sell one, it’s my baby, it’s gone. It’s a one-of-a-kind. Everybody says, Why don’t you sell your things? I’m like, okay, but… I’m hoping that it’s in a collection; I’m hoping that somebody gets some pleasure out of it. But it’s gone. You have your prints. I won’t have one. I’ll have a picture. So I’m being very careful with who buys them–and I hope that they love them.”

Based on the reactions of people who ooh and ahh over them during the art walks, it’s clear that they do.

“I’m always curious, though, who is the person that might want to buy one, that might want to have one in their house? That’s an interesting person, because it’s not your normal, shiny, glossy, pretty, colorful piece of art that you hang on the wall. Not that I have anything against that. It’s something that’s going to sit there and people are going to say for the rest of your life: Why the hell did you buy that?” Sandell laughs. “What does it do? Or, Turn it off, it’s squeaking too much. But I’m amused by that. I like that it makes noises and squeaks. They would be no good to me if they didn’t squeak and clatter and creak. That’s part and parcel to the pieces.”

Close-up details of Sandell’s kinetic sculptures. Photo courtesy of Dallas Sterling

Taking us back in time

We talk at length about the old-fashioned penny arcades, with their array of mechanical games. Sandell says he grew up in the mountains at Big Bear Lake when there were two such arcades, and he recounts the hours spent there, at a time when maybe a nickel was all you needed for a pinball game or a chance to lower a claw-like arm and pull out a stuffed animal.

It wasn’t just the games, per se, but the physical and visual texture of the place, its visceral feel and atmosphere. This is something that Sandell wants to embody in the work he creates.

“I work very hard on my pieces,” he says. “They’re layered and layered with paint. I scuff ‘em up and then I repaint them. I paint them and repaint them as if over 70, 80 years they’ve been repainted.”

They should look, he adds, as if they’ve been hauled from town to town, on boxcars, one imagines. One of Sandell’s jobs as an art director was to select the appropriate colors for different sets. What that often meant, he explains, entailed making “something that we build new onstage look like it’s been there for a couple of hundred years. I think that’s stood me in good stead when it comes to painting my smaller pieces.”

But if one can smell the new paint, doesn’t that kind of give it away?

It would, but Sandell has a remedy for that as well.

“I have a couple of smells that I get from a lady that makes them for me, of tobacco and a cotton candy smell. So I’ll just dab a little, and tent them… I want these (artworks) to have a history of smell also. Very subliminal, just something there, without making the whole gallery smell like a smoke shop, of course.” And for that matter, he doesn’t mind if his work gets a little dusty. That simply adds to the patina.

Like toys in the attic or memories recovered from another time. Photo courtesy of Dallas Sterling

All of this, taken together, I say, transports the viewer in time.

“I hope so,” Sandell replies. “I think that’s a lovely way to put it actually. I hope that people do see it. It takes them back to a simpler time before…” He pauses. “I’m not a big fan of everybody wandering around looking at their iPhones and looking at their computers all day. I find it just a little disheartening. Maybe this is something that’s a little different for people to look at.”

Very Cinematic Narrative, featuring kinetic sculptures by William Sandell and oil paintings by Cynda Valle, opens Friday, Jan. 13, with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Manhattan Beach Art Center, 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach. (310) 802-5440 or go to citymb.info. To learn more about each artist, go to cyndavalle.com or williansandell.com. ER


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