by Dan Erlacher

In a caf & eacute; that celebrates such classics of the art world as Kramer in a formal oil portrait and fellow Seinfeld buddy George Costanza posing for eternity in his boxers, somehow Ken Yuhasz's VW Microbus plunging through the wall hardly seems out of place. But a studied pause reveals something more than the simple whimsy of the other art adorning the Rock City Grill's busy walls. To look beyond the unexpected scale of the work with its dizzying headlights and crazed driver aglow in neon is to see the work of a designer's eye, a concern for craft, something behind the colorful exuberance -- call it whimsy with purpose. Just don't bother Ken Yuhasz with such pretensions.

The Spokane artist describes his entry into art as accidental: "I backed into neon," he shrugs modestly. A 30-year graphic designer and sign-maker, Yuhasz got his start with neon when he accidentally broke a neon tube on a sign he was renovating for a customer. The old timer who fixed the sign showed Yuhasz the craft of "glass bending" but likely never foresaw the creative perspective he had unleashed on an unsuspecting world. For while Yuhasz is undeniably a craftsman when it comes to glass bending, it is his bent way of seeing that distinguishes his work.

After all, when is the last time you saw a seaplane in that Sunbeam iron you use to steam the wrinkles out of your dress shirts? Or heartbreak in your handheld vacuum cleaner? A bird, of sorts, in an antique radio? How about the Red Baron's Fokker lurking in that old toaster in your kitchen? Such perspectives seem to come naturally to Yuhasz. His ideas, he says, just come to him as he looks at the world around him, at which point he sketches them -- on a sheet of paper or just in his head -- and goes to work. And the works exude a sense of spontaneity, reflecting their creator's inspiration.

While he acknowledges the workmanship and design required to create pieces that appear so effortless, Yuhasz himself claims no higher purpose for his work: "I want to make people laugh," he says. Of course, he wouldn't mind selling them as art, either.

Undoubtedly to most Yuhasz fans, it is his works' simple exuberance that most distinguishes them. But as Ken showed me work after work and described how he came to conceive of them, he reveals a depth, perhaps in spite of himself, that he is too modest to admit.

At age 15, Yuhasz went to work for an appliance repair shop. There he discovered a natural mechanical aptitude as Jack, the owner of the business, taught him to repair just about anything. His inclination shows in his consistent focus on found objects from an earlier era, objects that shun the coldness of computerized circuitry in favor of a straightforward, mechanical approach, reflecting the down-to-earth pragmatism of Yuhasz himself.

As a sign maker, he focuses first on the needs of his customers, but it is the design and craftsmanship that clearly are more interesting to him. Yuhasz says of his years as a draftsman, "There is a very formulaic way of drafting a 3D object so you can build it. It's very rigid -- in many ways inhibiting to free expression." But Yuhasz inevitably finds an outlet that is clearly his own.

Outwardly, the objects Yuhasz chooses boast the stylized lines of an old speedboat or the inflated fenders of a 1930s sports car -- lines that challenge the apologetically trim lines of more contemporary devices. While at 15 Yuhasz did not yet possess the eye for design he has now, in retrospect he can see the nascent appreciation for the old objects others just cast away. "The design of the old stuff is just so much more interesting," he says.

Yuhasz comes by his appreciation for things mechanical from his father, a first rate fix-it man himself whom Yuhasz honored in what he admits is his most personal piece. The sculpture stands simply, a faithful recreation of his father's workbench, complete with pegboard-organized hand tools. Typical of Ken's creations, though, the center of attention is the unexpected: a drill press, crafted of acrylic plastic and multi-colored neon tubes, hovers over the work surface of the bench. Crafted of light, the drill press seems to float, a ghostly presence from another world. And, in fact, in the elder Yuhasz's era, this device was an otherworldly visitor; Yuhasz remembers it was the only drill press in the neighborhood. It was a machine others looked to with envy, and the young Yuhasz's estimation of his father rose with the distinction.

The past looms large in conversations with Yuhasz. His most recent show, opening at the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d' Alene on Friday, is entitled "Out of the Attic," and as the title suggests, the collection showpieces found objects that reflect the style, grace and mechanical simplicity of the era of Yuhasz's youth. Yet it would be a mistake to see Yuhasz's work as nostalgia; instead, despite the age of the found objects, the neon additions -- interpretations, really -- contribute a decidedly contemporary feel to the pieces. The flying toaster, for example, while essentially a 1940s appliance adorned with stylized wings reminiscent of a '50s service station logo, becomes a three-dimensional embodiment of a popular computer screensaver.

Just as the substance of Yuhasz's work is retro while the style is contemporary, the carefree humor of the pieces is enriched by the research that often goes into them. The airplanes Yuhasz creates, for example, while highly stylized, are in fact based on actual biplane designs. Yuhasz's American Beauty Low-Wing Mono-Iron, for example, is so true to life it prompted local sculptor Harold Balazs to recognize its inspiration in the very real plane that crashed into his uncle's orchard during an air race back when Balazs was growing up.

And while Yuhasz's works explicitly celebrate the past, they also implicitly criticize of the dearth of design and permanence in many of today's throwaway objects. Yet even this portent of seriousness is relieved by irony. Yuhasz smiles at what Jack of the appliance shop would say about what Ken is doing with perfectly repairable appliances: "Throwing away good money," Yuhasz good-naturedly mimics.

Criticism is clearly not Yuhasz's intent, however. He is not out to change the world; through laughter, however, he just might change the way we see it. An artist friend once reminded him of Swiss artist Paul Klee observation: "Art isn't what you see; art makes you see."

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