Satre Stuelke’s three big, goofy faux appliances at Aron Packer promise to improve your life. One supposedly measures charisma, and the two titled KarizMatic guarantee “a dramatic increase in charisma” if you sit in front of them five minutes a day. After moving from Baltimore to New York in 2001, Stuelke couldn’t afford a space to build in anymore, but the show includes designs for eight unbuilt machines. Among them are the Directive Indicator, which aids in decision making, and the Bubble Catcher, which “removes radio signal bubbles from the home.” Stuelke has also created a fictional company, SATResearch, whose brochure offers an “assertiveness amplifier.” Though he pokes fun at buying into the self-improvement industry, Stuelke doesn’t make the viewer completely passive–because the machines contain theremins, nearby movements create space-age sounds.

Stuelke says he’s been obsessed with household appliances as long as he can remember. Growing up in Iowa, he used to ride the vacuum cleaner and floor polisher when his mom used them, and at six or seven he grew fascinated with electrical outlets and would stick things in them, getting shocked more than once. His mom was also interested in wall sockets: “She would plug them up because she thought the electricity would leak out and raise our electricity bills.” Morbidly secretive, she was afraid of intruders and tried not to give out their address. Stuelke spent a lot of time in his basement workshop disassembling appliances and building “model cars, airplanes, rockets–typical boy stuff.” The summer after high school he worked as an apprentice building theater sets, which reminded him of model airplane building. “If you’re sitting in the audience, something is quite convincingly a door or a wall, but if you walk up, it’s a flimsy, thrown-together fake. This got me thinking about how people interpret things and how we construct meaning out of as few cues as possible while choosing to ignore others.”

As an art major at the University of Iowa, wanting to show the “body as a machine,” Stuelke began creating collages out of photographs he took of century-old medical specimens, including preserved human body parts, and photos he took of anatomical drawings. After getting his BFA he went to medical school but switched to art school after two years, first at Iowa, then at the University of Chicago. Working as a projectionist here, Stuelke was inspired in part by German expressionist films to build life-size sets for the purpose of photographing them. Among his props was a three-foot-high electrical outlet topped by a Gothic arch. He intended the photographs to explore the moment when viewers realized that “what they were looking at was actually fake.” But his University of Chicago professors weren’t happy with his work and placed him on “double secret probation–‘double’ because it’s your second quarter, and ‘secret’ because we can’t tell the dean.” This unofficial form of probation and his reading of Baudrillard made him see that our culture is “full of simulacra.” He transferred again, to the School of the Art Institute, where his photographs were well received and he got his MFA in 1994. But he found that at all three schools “you get in the habit of preempting ideas that you can’t defend intellectually.” Several years after grad school he made 19 miniature Kirby vacuum cleaners, which he photographed in “Busby Berkeley-like sets,” and around this time he realized he was most interested in the appliances themselves. In 2001 he quit photography.

At first Stuelke couldn’t explain why he was making appliances–“they didn’t really seem to come from my brain.” But today he sees meaning in them. Long fascinated with dystopian fiction, from Orwell to Philip K. Dick, he wanted to replace all its “negative stuff” with humor: “I like to laugh, I like to make other people laugh.” But he’s also parodying consumerism. “Advertising promises things through products which can’t deliver,” he says, “while everyone is more and more concerned with owning stuff.”

Satre Stuelke

When: Through Sat 8/20

Where: Aron Packer, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-226-8984