The sculptures of Eric Dietz look like machinery. He calls them “failed prototypes.”

Dietz, who’s 28, says he’s always been obsessed with smokestacks, exhaust pipes, and chimneys. While growing up in Grayslake, he was captivated by “gigantic” wastewater ponds behind an abandoned gelatin factory. “Anything that had to do with drains, rust, or decay fascinated me,” he says. “Maybe it was my way of rebelling.”

In art school at Northern Illinois University, Dietz started reading about the work of Mark Pauline and his San Francisco-based Survival Research Laboratories. “They just take machines and subvert what they’re made for,” he says. “Their machines spit fire. In a half-hour show they wage a battle and destroy themselves.” (One critic described a Pauline show as “a rusty carnival in hell.”) By the time Dietz’s sculpture instructor took the class to a junkyard, he was ready. “I went insane. Everyone else got 10 or 20 pounds, and I ended up with 180 pounds.” He found a thresher blade, spikes, and steel pipes, and he made a metal piece five feet long, fitted with blades and a pitchfork, that rocked back and forth like a farm implement gone mad.

After college Dietz needed a job. He saw an Orkin ad and thought “it would be fun to tell people I get to work with poisons.” He soon discovered that the job was “more preventative and technical” than he had imagined. While the reality of being an exterminator has changed–“everything’s very safe”–Dietz says his job has put him behind the scenes in vast industrial spaces, which he finds inspiring. “You don’t realize the mind-boggling machinery required to fill a bag of food.”

Each work in Dietz’s show is titled with a year from a different decade, representing “what was going on then, at least to me.” He says his “12 years of Catholic school probably explains a lot,” such as 1907–(Stigmatamatic), which has “a turn-of-the-century poor box look to it” and requires a coin to operate. You place your arm in a slot, and after a slight sting a spot of red food coloring appears on the center of your palm. “Religious imagery is fascinating to me–the burning bush, the shroud of Turin, really unexplained kinds of things,” he says. “I wanted an undercurrent of, could this be in a church? Would this be another way for the church to make money, charging for miracles?

“Hopefully it’s interesting to look at, and hopefully it does a neat task, and you can say ‘Wow!’ and leave the gallery with a red mark on your hand. Then you might want to think about it a little more and ask, ‘Why would he make that? Did he base it on anything, or is it just wholly made up?’ I think a lot of us are so into a routine every day that we don’t see. There’s far too much stuff in the world that blends into the background. There’s so much opportunity to make things more interesting.”

“It Moves,” a show of ten works by Dietz and other machines gone awry by Timothy S. Brower, is on display through February 15 at Beret International Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee. Gallery hours are 1 to 5 Thursday through Saturday. For more information, call 773-489-6518.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nathan Mandell/ “1907-(Stigmatagmatic)”.