Wizened widgets stand sentry over a secular world

James Brems' 29 hefty wood sculptures stand around Foster/White Gallery like a crowd of partygoers. Ranging up to 6 feet tall, they have familiar-looking shapes, but you can't quite put your finger on their function. A screw eye? A meat tenderizer? Something that fell out of an engine?

The Seattle artist's latest sculpture project, "Widget World," is a little like stepping into Alice's Wonderland and realizing that the scale and meaning of everything is way out of whack.

"Just what is a widget, anyway?" I asked the artist by phone.

Brems had already checked the dictionary. "If you look up gizmos and gadgets, it's about the same. It's a piece of a tool or machinery that's been separated from its parent, so you don't know where it came from."

Gallery manager Tom Landowski, who came up with the crowded and pleasing installation design, sums up the experience of elbowing in among the sculptures: "It's like being inside a pinball machine."

Brems got the idea for the work several years ago, while visiting the Borobadur temple in Java, where village craftsmen were restoring the ancient site. "This particular evening they were carving Ganesh (the Hindu god), familiar for removing obstacles in a spiritual sense," Brems said. "So I got to thinking: What is responsible for removing obstacles in my life as an American?"

The first thing that popped into his mind was plumbing. Then, machines.

Brems decided to enlist a group of those Javanese craftsmen and collaborate on a different kind of sculpture project. Most of the pieces are carved teakwood, made from Brems' drawings. The wood has already begun to look weathered and cracked, like some carved bodhisattva that's long been standing in an abandoned garden.

For clues to how Brems got into all this, I looked at his résumé: a degree in Asian languages and literature from the University of Washington; an adviser to the Royal Thai Army; travel in India; graduate school in Asian languages; and studying calligraphy and ceramics in Japan. Then there are the paintings and painted "color sculptures" that the 56-year-old artist has been showing in Seattle since 1985.

None of it explains how he got to "Widget World." Or why the group of big, funny forms is so endearing.

Brems maintains that he's striving for more than humor. "Even though they have a lighthearted aspect, I was trying to make a point." He sees the work as a way of translating the idea of Ganesh to a contemporary American point of view, equating industry with a god-like force able to remove obstacles, to generate money and power.

In an industrial setting, such objects would be soulless cogs. But here in "Widget World," they've been zapped by that lightning bolt that turns matter into art.

And if they look a little worn and out of place — well, that's exactly the way a widget is supposed to be.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com.

James Brems' "Widget World,"

10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. today and tomorrow, noon-5 p.m. Sunday, through Sunday, Foster/White Gallery, 123 S. Jackson St., Seattle; 206-622-2833 or www.fosterwhite.com.