Benjamin Wilkins, a young Seattle photographer, has recast Leonardo's vision in Technological Infant (1999). A young woman, splayed out on a large white wheel, substitutes for Leonardo's man. The toes of one of her feet grip the edge of a small footrest as the wheel rolls down an incline. As the model is turned nearly sideways by the wheel's motion (shown in multiple exposures), her hair and breasts respond to gravity, subtly undercutting the symmetry of her pose.
As the exhibit's posted text points out, Wilkins' work recalls that of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering early 20th-century photographer whose pseudo-scientific stop-motion camera studies have influenced a wide group of contemporary artists. Muybridge sought to document exactly what happened to human and animal bodies as they performed simple tasks like walking, running, and jumping. Wilkins' work shares that basic curiosity, but his artificial settings, unlike Muybridge's, aren't meant to be neutral backdrops, and the actions he's documenting are not found in everyday life.
The body is evidence in Wilkins' photographs, evidence of its own distance from the ideal forms conceived for it. The primary mechanism for this revelation is simple gravity. And the backdrop of these deviations from idealized states is a constructed, mechanical world of wheels, periscopes, lenses, simple machines, and scaffolding. Wilkins inserts his human subjects into the scenery as if they were themselves simple objects, then documents the incompatibility of their bodies with these settings.
The 10 pieces on display at the gallery run by the King County Office of Cultural Resources are of varying quality. There's six years worth of work represented, from 1994 to 1999, and the more recent pieces are far superior. Early pieces tend to be either overly obvious (the Rodin-inspired Thinking Gear, 1995) or overly obscure.
In later works, Wilkins sets up deceptively simple scenes, matching nude models with machine-like constructions that Wilkins builds himself. The intersection of man and machine tends to result in an interesting slippage between his orderly constructions and the slightly disorderly bodies which attempt to inhabit or use them. Soluble Fix (1998) recomposes the basic Atlas scene -- man supporting globe -- using a table with a large hole cut into the middle. A male model, face down, hangs uncomfortably from its edges: his arms and legs holding him as the middle of his body arcs into the hole; on the small of his back rests the framework of a geodesic globe. His cock and balls dangle in front of him, wrecking the compositional arc of his body and giving the photo a slightly ridiculous air.
Optical Leak (1997) uses two exposures of a single female model, placed on either side of a lens array. On one side of the image, she's standing up, facing the lens; on the other side, her image is mirrored upside-down. This plain illustration of lens properties gets its juice from the subtle differences between the two images. The model's breasts are the giveaway: Rather large, and explicitly subject to gravity, they show that the seemingly identical images -- the real one, and its upside-down projection -- are individual and different. There's an interesting flux between fact and fiction going on in this piece. By using a "real" image (the upside-down model) to mimic an image of an image (the lens' projection), Wilkins adds to the layers of fictionality; a little slip between idea and reality exposes the whole construction.
Wilkins exposes his own constructions in one of the best pieces in the show. Scaffolding (1998) shows a female model being roughly moved into place, suspended horizontally by two belts on a hook. In front of her is a large metal frame; behind her, three panels hang at different levels, a backdrop not yet lined up in place. The absurdity of the image -- a body being swung into position like an I-beam at a construction site -- tells the story of his working process perfectly. Wilkins understands his means and his ends, but his competence and hard work are overshadowed -- thankfully -- by the intelligence of his concepts.