There are mysteries of the infrastructure for which these drawings by Martha Lewis initially appear to offer solutions. What they do instead is to complicate, with colorful precision, our notions of an industrial underworld in all its necessary, but inexplicable, reality. Given our ignorance, they might as well be accurate depictions of those frenzies of pipes and conduits that run beneath our civilized surfaces, or the electrical grids that animate our privileged technology. Like the unmasked Wizard of Oz, we have no means of reversing the machine, because we “don’t know how it works.”
But Lewis’s mechanisms are often benign where they might be ominous (although there is one drawing of gauges that could provide information we would be too frightened to learn). It is like opening a file cabinet from a 19th century patent office, full of schematic drawings that have lost their labels.These objects have a wonderfully useless quality to them, like products of the the machine that swallows Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times. At the center of that comedy is the fact that all its whirl is pointless, producing nothing real at all. Lewis also inherits from Rube Goldberg, except that the inefficient splendor of his contraptions did still contain a purposeful relationship of cause and effect.
Here are also weapons, as in a tank-like vehicle that might serve as a plot for the inner workings of Claes Oldenburg’s Lipstick (ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, in the courtyard of Yale’s Morse College. Like that comic monster, it is disarmed, capable only of trundling about idiotically like one of those toys that bumps its way from wall to wall, arrogant and harmless. It made me wish that Lewis had been available to revise Eli Whitney’s sketch for the cotton gin, thus ending slavery before it began.