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Notes from the underground 

Mike Wsol's commentary works from the bottom up

As children we are drawn to the unseen and secret worlds: the earthworms boring through the earth, the change hidden under the couch.

As adults, we'd rather not know.

The revelation of unseen worlds generally has darker implications for grown-ups. Expensive plumbing overhauls, radon, cancer, adultery and termites define adulthood's uncharted territory. Mike Wsol's large tabletop-scale sculptures in steel, fiberboard and plywood are founded on what lies beneath. Most of his architectural models for stadiums and buildings sit on gray foundations on top of thick gray pylons to reveal the underpinning structure that supports his buildings.

That material beneath his structures speaks to all the hidden operations that underpin the visible world. Wsol's work, on display in a solo exhibition at Saltworks Gallery, is very much about what architecture -- both above ground and below -- can reveal about human behavior. Even in the process of revealing the structure of things, Wsol is aware of the comedic value in some of his designs. His prints and architectural models mix the visionary and the madcapped, like his diagram for a "Rat Trap" -- envisioned as a mod, curvy structure, like a high-end takeout container.

Wsol indulges similarly humorous impulses in "Gentrification Project." To create this hypothetical building, Wsol has taken an ornately carved antique chest of drawers and used it as the facade of a building whose interior and walls are made up of more modern, nouveau shapes cut from plywood. The piece suggests history as a mere facade for pretense and gentrification -- which purports to lift dying neighborhoods up by their bootstraps -- as just a pose. Wsol shows the aesthetic disconnect with gentrification between the old and new.

In the blink of an eye, Wsol's work can move from such witty takes on architecture's false promises to dystopian surveys of its potential harm.

When he's not grinning, Wsol exhibits real cynicism about architecture's potential to entrap and dictate. Much of the world that Wsol envisions via his architecture is one of conformity, utility and other antihuman concepts expressed in his prints of concrete bunkers and factory farms.

In Wsol's grim world, buildings are often set into the sides of hills like bomb shelters hugging the bosomy security of Mother Earth. They seem designed with either nuclear attack or a hermetic life without sun in mind.

The architectural blueprints and models that Wsol's work is inspired by are works in progress, conjecture and hypothesis. Wsol takes that speculative dimension to architectural drafts one step further. His ideas for a "Carved-Out Foundation" and a "Run Off Channel" are injected with an element of menace and mystery that any ambiguous and unrealized project can have. Without explanatory text or clearer titles, one has to wonder what, exactly, this master builder has in mind -- run off of what?

The architectural model "Drain Rooms" is the perfect example of his anxiety-inspiring designs. You look down on the model with a godlike sense of omniscience -- though, like the Almighty, you may not dig what you see.

In this model of a windowless building, each cell-like room features a large drain hole at its center, which then funnels into an underground circuit of pipes and eventually into a huge tunnel. The building is defined by this entirely hidden function -- the transportation of some unknown liquid. Is it a prison? Abattoir? Laundry? It is the ambiguity of just exactly what this space is designed for that adds a creepy, horror-show dimension.

The model is also a metaphor for every building as a temporary sarcophagus for bodies that will eventually decay and leach back into the earth. Moving fluids quickly and efficiently is a mini-theme of the show, with its many gullies, trenches, channels and pipelines. Buildings thus become analogous to our own bodies, with their complex and invisible operations.

Wsol tackles many different ideas in his show and exhibits a nimble ability to make cold, minimal drawings and models say a lot. Buildings are meant to be occupied by people, but Wsol suggests buildings are often made more to suit corporate or political agendas. His amphitheater model, "Public Forum," featuring terraced seating looking down onto a stage, exemplifies how architecture can make people sit, move and behave in a specific way. Such an idea has political ramifications when you wonder just what those unseen spectators are assembling to witness: a bullfight? A football game? A political rally? The buildings and forms Wsol invokes suggest architecture employed to maximize profit, with human needs only secondary.

Wsol is clearly a man with his eyes wide open to architecture's potential to define our culture and our customs.

But despite his technically virtuosic, deeply intelligent work, there is a lingering frustration in the exhibition. Wsol's varied tones, from a winking acknowledgment of gentrification's aesthetic failures to a more disturbing linkage of architecture with dehumanization and conformity, make one yearn for a little more coherence and a tighter rein on ideas that demand to be heard.

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