Secrets aren't safe in his sculptures

It all began on a dare. After getting a master's degree in art history from the University of Kansas, Wichita native Michael Aurbach was jogging with a friend who was also a painting teacher.

His friend told Aurbach that he didn't want him writing about his art unless he tried to make art himself.

Not one to ignore a challenge, Aurbach went along with his friend's request and Michael Aurbach the sculptor was born. A professor of sculpture at Vanderbilt University the past 25 years, Aurbach has returned to Wichita to show some of his work.

Visitors may be surprised at what they see at the Beren and Graves galleries at the Wichita Art Museum. Aurbach's sculptures are mammoth in scale. At first glance, they look like galvanized metal stage sets — cold, a little sinister, foreboding. It soon becomes apparent that Aurbach wants the viewer to feel uneasy.

The two sculptures on view are part of his "Secrecy Series."

"The inspiration for this series was an incident that involved one of my colleagues 17 years ago," Aurbach said. The teacher, he said, was charged with unintentional sexual harassment after one of his students complained about viewing graphic images during another student's presentation on controversial photographer Robert Mappelthorpe. The complaint prompted the dean to interview students in the class without the professor's knowledge and require them to submit reports on the teacher for the remainder of the semester.

"The dean essentially made the students spy on their teacher," Aurbach said. "In the end, these reports were used to charge the teacher. The students were so upset that they had been used in this way and the situation turned into an international incident.

"This whole incident got me to thinking about secrecy as an art topic," he said. "Secrets are not meant to be seen or heard, so this was to be a challenge — portraying secrecy in art."

His unusual structures are symbolic of the coldness of institutions (be they corporate, military, academic or government) and the control they have over others — but with a humorous twist.

A piece titled "Administrative Trial and Error" shows a laboratory-like room surrounded by bars topped with fleur-de-lis, a symbol of French nobility, but in this instance they embellish the bars of a cage.

The room contains a purple velvet throne and a row of rigid seats outfitted with leg shackles. Next to the throne is a chess set with only pawns, symbolizing the ruler's control over all. On the throne is a button that lifts and lowers a crown onto the ruler's head, which Aurbach describes as self-coronation. On a wall behind the throne are two exhaust pipes to illustrate that the ruler is full of hot air.

"My work has a lot of humor but it is about very serious issues," Aurbach said.

One of those issues, surveillance, is addressed in a piece titled "The Administrator." It is a satire of a paranoid administrator who keeps secret files on all of his underlings and uses telescopes to spy on them. In front of his oversized desk is a small chair that heats up (the hot seat) and rests on a trapdoor so that the administrator may discard whoever displeases him.

Given the size of Aurbach's pieces, it's easy to see how one sculpture takes nearly two years to create. The works combine satirical wit and countless details to convey serious messages about greed and power. By using modern materials and symbolism found in Renaissance works, Aurbach offers the viewer an exciting puzzle to ponder and decipher.

If you go

'The Secrecy Series'

What: Sculptures by Wichita native Michael Aurbach

Where: Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd.

When: On display through Oct. 10. Museum hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays.

How much: Admission $7; free on Saturdays. For more information, call 316-268-4921 or go to www.wichitaartmuseum.org.