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Machine Project's art treasure hunt at the Gamble House

Artists take over Pasadena's Gamble House for Machine Project's AxS Festival installation

For a lot of Angelenos, the historic Gamble House in Pasadena is the sort of place you visit once. You make your reservation, you take your tour, you admire the fine Craftsman architecture at behemoth scale, you ooh and aaah over the fine wood furnishings and the glorious picture window, and then you go home. But a new series of contemporary art installations by the Los Angeles arts group Machine Project provides plenty of reason to return to the home again and again.

Mark Allen of Machine Project, who curated the exhibition, spent roughly a year studying the home's architecture and its history in the company of many of the artists who were invited to do interventions.

"We wanted to make works directly related to the house," he explains. "We wanted ideas of the now from then, and ideas of the now from now, and we wanted to put them together to see how they could have a conversation with each other."

The Gamble House was designed by the celebrated architectural firm of Greene & Greene in 1908 as a retirement home for David and Mary Gamble, of Procter & Gamble fame. It is an exquisite example of California Craftsman architecture, with custom-made lamps, original furnishings and artful joinery carved by Scandinavian woodworkers from 17 species of wood. 

Into this temple-like space, Machine Project has inserted contemporary works by a diverse group of Los Angeles artists. This includes the prominent piece by Patrick Ballard out front, which will be activated by puppeteers over the course of the show. (The piece, which bears the Fiona Apple-esque title of "The Swirling Mess Below the Sleeping Porch Soon Solidified into A Crest of Phantasmagoric Weight that Creaks Between the Doors, the Floors, and a Form that Could Never Be a House Again," plays with the design of the Gamble family crest, which consisted of a crane and a rose.)

But it contains many more subtle interventions inside by artists such as painter Henry Taylor and opera singer Carmina Escobar (who has hidden a bunch of mechanical singing birds in the attic). There are pieces tucked into hallways and basements and bathrooms, and some are hidden in plain sight — like the trompe l'oeil works of sculptor Ricky Swallow and the surreal plant pieces of Michael O'Malley, which camouflage themselves right into the decor.

This is where the exhibition becomes totally engrossing. In searching for the pieces, I found myself noticing details of the house anew: the wooden bas relief of cranes in the living room, the meticulously designed joinery, the delicate floral pattern above the fireplace, the grain of the wood furniture, and the vines that drape down from a second-story planter. Allen and Machine Project have outdone themselves in working with, not against this wondrous place.

Perhaps the one thing I might have added would be a piece by Ramiro Gomez, known for his cardboard silhouettes that depict the city's largely invisible Mexican labor, as a reminder that this sort of luxury doesn't just happen. It is constructed daily by armies of people, who are often left out of the stories we tell about a place.

But I'm nit-picking. The show is terrific. And there are a tsunami of events that will go along with it, from a group nap on one of the sleeping porches (you read that right) to a soap-making session to a secret restaurant to performance art to cat architecture workshops to ... well, you get the picture.

All of it is part of Pasadena's just-launched AxS art and science festival. Do not miss this opportunity to get to know this architectural icon in ways you hadn't imagined.

"The Machine Project Field Guide to the Gamble House" goes on view at the Gamble House starting today, and runs through Oct. 5. 4 Westmoreland Place (at Orange Grove Boulevard), Pasadena, machineproject.com and axsfestival.org. Log on to gamblehouse.org for a full list of tours and events.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah

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