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Inflatable art transforms museum, inside and out

By Jackie Lupo
YONKERS — The term “performance art” is too tame to describe Jimmy Kuehnle’s inflatable sculptures. The 36-year-old artist, now being featured in a solo show at the Hudson River Museum, has appeared in major metropolises around the world in his enormous pneumatic suits, confounding passers-by and stopping traffic. He has tipped over frequently and been helped up by strangers. He has been stuck under a bridge, caught on electrical


Jimmy Kuehnle wears his sculpture “Hello Bye” outside the Hudson River Museum on May 14.

power lines, and chased by children. His appearances “are like a guerilla performance in a public place,” Kuehnle told the Enterprise. When he hits the streets in one of his costumes, he’s content for people to interact with him or ignore him — which rarely happens. “Most people just smile and laugh,” he said.

Visitors to last month’s Kite Festival at the museum saw a strange creature strolling the grounds: That was Kuehnle, inside his towering “Walking Fish” sculpture, which will reappear at the museum's Family Day on June 26, when Kuehnle will demonstrate how he creates his works.

Kuehnle’s wearable sculptures represent his first foray into inflatable art, which he started making while in Japan on a Fulbright fellowship in 2008. Over the past few years, he has been commissioned to create traffic-stopping, non-wearable installations for museums and outdoor public spaces, where electronic programming, air compressors, and the natural elements combine to make the sculptures move about, seemingly “alive.”

Kuehnle’s balloon-like creations are now on display in “Tongue in Cheek: The Inflatable Art of Jimmy Kuehnle,” which opens at the museum tomorrow (June 4) and continues through Sept. 18. The exhibition starts in the main lobby and wends its way to the lower atrium floor. The huge, colorful fabric forms pulsate and bounce to the hum of air blowers, the shapes a soft counterpoint to the Brutalist-style architecture of the museum’s modern wing.

Although his works are vinyl-coated polyester fabric rather than marble or bronze, they are unmistakably sculptures. They arrive at the installation site looking like sacks full of parachutes. Kuehnle puts them together with a sewing machine in his large attic in Cleveland, Ohio, where he is on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Art. “I can make all the things in there, pack ‘em into the crate and send them where I want to go,” he said.

Actually, it’s not that simple. Kuehnle originally made drawings of his sculptures; now he plans out each one using computer-assisted design programs. How they will behave in three dimensions, especially outdoors, is unknown until they are installed. When they’re full of air, they’re fat, sassy, and shapely, inviting visitors to touch them.

The exhibition includes works seen at other venues, and three new works. All have fanciful titles, such as “Hot Polyester Bladder Lung.”

“The titles are kind of what pop into my head,” he explained. “I want the titles to be silly and thought-provoking enough so the people come talk to me, and I can talk to them about the work. For the title to have some absurdity too — just like the work itself — allows me to talk to people about the work, too.”

In the atrium is the debut of the acid-yellow “Bladder Lung,” which balances precariously over the balcony. Its shifting form appears to shrink and grow, collapsing over the edge into the atrium well, and then, with a great intake of breath, quickly re-inflating.

Kuehnle’s 2015 “Please, no smash,” a huge neon-pink creature with leg-like appendages, invites visitors to walk between its chubby limbs and lose themselves inside its body, which fills almost every dimension of the atrium. “People call it an octopus, a pink tooth, a pink thing,” he explained. When it was originally installed in the glass atrium of MOCA Cleveland last year, it was suspended above the visitors with its “legs” barely touching the floor. From outside the building, it looked like a molar with roots.

The most startling pieces created for the Yonkers exhibition are the two immense, red air sculptures outdoors. As motorists approach the museum on Warburton Avenue, they see “Super Punch Bubbles,” a necklace of air-filled spheres about 12 feet tall, strung around the limestone turret of Glenview, the Hudson River Museum's Victorian-era mansion. The spheres were designed to resemble red boxing gloves. “I knew I wanted to do something with the tower from the beginning,” Kuehnle said. “We went up there, and when you’re up there all the windows are the obvious feature.”

Tethering the sculpture to the tower, where the spheres would be buffeted by wind gusts off the Hudson River, presented a challenge. “All the work is ephemeral by its very nature,” Kuehnle said. “But the outdoor pieces are even more ephemeral.”

“Punch Bubbles” is an illuminated clock that blinks in different patterns as the time changes. Microprocessors control the timing of the 10 lights inside each sphere. Kuehnle used open-source programming software called Arduino, which can be used to control mechanisms as varied as robots and lighting, to automate this sculpture’s clock. It’s also used to control the behavior of the self-deflating “Bladder Lung,” and the lighting inside “Please, no smash,” which can also be programmed to tell time.

Outside the main museum entrance, the rectangular stone arch at the staircase is transformed by “You Lick Me, I Lick You,” in the shape of big, red tongues that dare the museum visitor to pass. Kuehnle explained that the tower necklace and the arch were inspired by the museum’s two distinct architectural styles. He also wanted the sculptures on the arch and the tower to interact visually. “Those are intentionally outside as well, for the general public, whoever that is,” he said. “I want to have art to be out in the public in everyday life, not just cloistered in museums. There can be the museum reaching out into the public, and that’s what these sculptures are supposed to do.”

Two examples of Kuehnle’s wearable sculptures, “You Wear What I Wear,” and “Hello Bye,” confront visitors in the smaller gallery off the atrium. People might scratch their heads when they see them, but he hopes they’ll do it with a smile. “I’d like them to experience joy and fun,” he said. “I’d like them to have a novel experience and cherish the opportunity… all the works are to remind people to cherish being alive, not being dead.  Enjoy experiences, and interact with other people.”

The Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Ave., Yonkers, is open Wednesday through Sunday, noon-5 p.m. For more information, visit or call 963-4550.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


June 3, 2016

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