Tim Kaulen is making giant toys out of scrap metal. There's an 8-foot giraffe, a pony-sized horse rearing up with a child-sized cowboy on its back.
Kid stuff. Still, there's something unsettling about the duck.
Like the other sculptures, the 9-foot-tall duck was fabricated in a cavernous old industrial space in Hazelwood -- the sort of reclaimed mill site where Kaulen has long built, and even exhibited, his sculptures of reclaimed materials.
Like giraffe and horse, the duck is dwarfed by a pair of scrap-metal steelworker sculptures. (Kaulen and his colleagues in Pittsburgh's storied Industrial Arts Co-Op crafted them in homage to laborers, and they're bound for the South Side Riverfront Park.) And in the dusky gloom, all the sculptures are half-swallowed by the big shed's darkness.
But the giraffe looks gentle: head demurely bowed, legs straight over forklift wheels. The horse, spiffed up with filigree from wrought-iron railings, seems playful. So why does the duck unnerve a bit? Is it the head's aggressive leftward cock? The beak open for a big silent quack? The disproportionately small wings, raised as if in alarm?
Together, the three toys comprise Garden of Earthly Delights, Kaulen's upcoming Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Artist of the Year show. The show opens with a Fri., Sept. 25, reception also honoring Emerging Artist of the Year Dylan Vitone and his photography show The Miami Project.
Kaulen and his assistants have spent two years on Garden, which was inspired by vintage toys like those he found in his dad's garage years ago: the old wood and metal kind, the mechanical contraptions, even little plastic soldiers.
Kaulen's sculptures, including the fantastic giant heron in the Children's Museum lobby, are typically wrought from salvage. Sources for the giant toys included the three-ton, 36-foot-long steel smokestack laying along the shop wall like a felled tree, big shapes blow-torched from its flank.
On a night two weeks before the opening, assistants Jared Ondovchik and Marcus Rettig weld, grind and chop-saw away, finishing up. Kaulen, by day a Carnegie Mellon University staff photographer, will group the toys in close array in Mellon Park. It's the same PCA lawn space occupied 15 years ago by another signature piece, a giant stylized "goose" whose body was an old camper-trailer.
Kaulen's art is deceptively simple. "It's taking small symbolic shapes and allowing them to grow and be bigger, and take on a different life -- mostly by throwing different materials at them," he says.
But the media also assume a life of their own -- the bulk and thrust of steel, for instance, pushing what's intimate to be architectural. "As much as I try to manage [the material], it manages you," he says.
The duck is the sculpture he's struggled with the most. When finished, its head will be painted bright green, its body red and yellow. Kaulen mounts a step ladder to fit some steel bar inside its head, behind the eyes -- the raised, steel-bar eyes whose irises and pupils unite in two crazy, staring crescent moons.
"Whenever I'm here," says Kaulen, "I'm like, 'Is he looking at me?'"
Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Artist of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year Opening reception 5:30-8 p.m. Fri., Sept. 25. $5 donation requested. 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org