Blow Up: Chasing the Push Button Dream with Jimmy Kuehnle

The first time I saw Jimmy Kuehnle, I bumped into him literally, but we didn’t meet. We were at the same party in 2011, the Cleveland Urban Design Center’s Hipp Deck, which was on the top level of a downtown parking garage, at East 9th and Euclid.  This was as hard and gray as an urban landscape gets–a concrete floor with stone buildings towering all around. The entire party was meant to transform perceptions of that space, and in the middle of it was Jimmy, wearing one of his vividly colored, inflatible suits–a  wobbling, bouncing blob of pink, blue and orange, festooned with inflatible hammers to bop the passers by. It looked like some kind of microbe, overgrown as result of a lab accident, running wild in the cityscape of a B movie. It begged for pinching and poking, and for party guests to wonder, “what do you make of this?”


Kuehnle teaches in the Foundation department at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and as 2016 draws to a close is nearing the completion of a productive Creative Workforce Fellowship—the individual artist grants administered by the Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture, and funded by the cigarette tax, through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.


“My dream is to have artwork that with just the press of a button expands into a total visceral, ephemeral and engaging art experience accessible to all,” Kuehnle says. “[My] wearable inflatable suits chase that dream. I can pack them up in a backpack, get on a bicycle, get in a car, get on a train, and then when I arrive somewhere I can become huge, be mobile, walk around, augment the environment and make everyone smile. It requires more effort than simply pushing a button, but it becomes an art instrument that I can later pack up–just like putting a guitar in its case–and pedal to a new location.”


In recent years, the dream has evolved as Kuehnle has installed a steady stream of site specific, grand scale inflatibles that bring the sense of color and fun to some prominent venues, like the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas  (Amphibious Inflatible Suit In Captivity, 2014), and MOCA Cleveland (Please, no smash, 2015).  He models the large installations digitally, using Sketchup, which allows him to unfold the forms he draws to make patterns in nylon fabric. He stitches them together on-site, with a sewing machine. Kuehnle says these works are influenced by “large architectural things,” like the monumental fabric installations of Christo, spatially playful sculptures by Richard Serra, the early 1970s inflatable structures by the Ant Farm collective, works of  Paul McCarthy, Nishi Tatsu, and others.


These abstract forms could read as simply that—shapes, occupying and redefining space with their color, and making no other explanation. But Kuehnle has christened them with names that undercut that cold, modernist perspective. For example,  Inflatible Wonderland Labrynth of Joy inhabited  The Sculpture Center (Cleveland) in 2012. And a massive, double-tongue structure called You Lick Me, I Lick You stuck out at the grand staircase to enter Tongue In Cheek, his exhibit at the Hudson River Museum in New York, June 4 – September 18, 2016.


The humor of these works is omnipresent, and inescapable. Among the collateral materials for the Crystal Bridges installation was a tongue-in-cheek, nature show-style video about the Amphibious Inflatible Suit In Captivity. In the manner of a biologist working in the field, Kuehnle described the sculpture as a living creature in a challenging environment: “Arkansas has very interesting native flora and fauna, including Amphibious Inflatible Suits, [which] are very difficult to keep in captivity.  . . . there are a lot of requirements. For example, AIS needs to have a daily exercise routine that has some weight bearing component, and they need a water source . . . But they also need  to be able to bond with people in public, often referred to as ‘non-host humans.’ Otherwise their brain atrophies and they are unable to even do their exercise routines, and they die. Luckily the AIS has symbiotically evolved with non-host humans, so that when a large colorful object such as an AIS moves through an urban or rural environment, humans have an emergent draw to it . . . they say ‘Wow, that is bright . . . I will help it . . . .”

In all, he has made 10 large, site-specific inflatibles, most of which are interactive in one way or another:  At MOCA, Please, No Smash employed an Arduino open-source microprocessor to manage a timed cycle so that the sculpture would inflate from the ceiling, encroaching on the museum’s lobby for a few seconds—even interrupting traffic—and then retracting back toward the ceiling, like a big, red, breathing valve. On opening night, people timed their passage beneath the sculpture, like kids running between the swings of a sprinkler. You could see this spectacle from the street.


The opportunity for his most recent large installation came about when Akron Art Museum Director of Education Alison Caplan saw Please, no smash at MOCA. She contacted Kuehnle in February. They had worked out the plan for what would become Wiggle Giggle Jiggle by the end of June. Kuehne began fabrication in July, and the installation was finished by August 26. “A tight timeline,” Kuehnle says.

Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle (on view at the Akron museum through February 19, 2017) engages the audience differently, depending on where you’re standing.  Most obviously, as a person walks into the museum’s angular, glass foyer, it hangs like a red cloud, or an enigmatic bit of HVAC ductwork that simply jars expectations of the space. With its proportions and the angle at which it projects out from a stair into the foyer, it echoes the “roof cloud”–the overhanging, cantilevered steel and glass element of the still new-ish Coop Himmelb(l)au building.


Like Please, No Smash, Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle also employs software and a microprocessor to govern its lights and fans. Walk around to one end, and as one of the sculpture’s protruberances inflates and becomes erect, you can’t help but notice that the form echoes the similarly-red shape of the Claes Oldenberg Inverted Q sculpture, which is  on exhibit nearby.


At its other end, perhaps 30 yards away and up a set of stairs, the installation takes visitors back to their bouncy house days at the carnival. There is no actual bouncing, but people can walk through a maze of encroaching, inflated blobs. Spaces open and close as visitors walk, their bodies enveloped red. Their friction against the puffed-up nylon pillows makes a weird, theramin-like sound as they squeeze through.


For Kuehnle, the architectural-scale inflatibles continue the work of the portable, wearable suits. “[These] recent monumental site-specific inflatable installations … chase the push button dream by offering art audiences an interactive, kinetic, engaging and ephemeral experience, while at the same time providing the general public views of colored light and form from outside the museum that enhance the general ambiance of the urban environment.”


But while the portable suits are made to go anywhere, he says in some cases, the large scale works only make sense in the space for which they were designed.


“The Akron Art Museum has very angular and eccentric architecture without a lot of right angles. As I designed the two appendages on the lobby inflatable to go up and down I referenced the museum’s exterior cloud forms and the form of the walkway on the second level.” And of course he notes the echo between his work and Claes Oldenberg’s Inverted Q.


“I believe strongly in creating art accessible to viewers on multiple levels and circumstances,” Kuehnle says. “Inflatables allow me to reach and impact a much larger audience than solid sculpture, simply because I enter the public space with unnaturally scaled yet approachable objects that can have a disarming effect on participants to act as an ice breaker for sincerer and more mutual engagement.”


For Kuehnle, and audiences, and maybe especially for museum directors, that vision is an absolute dream.