‘The Secret Life of Robots’ Shows Robots’ Human Side

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By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

From looking around at the myriad sculptures currently on display at SPACE Gallery Downtown, a casual onlooker might assume that artist Toby Atticus Fraley harbors a deep love of robots.

That sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. Fraley, 36, has been making found-object robots for nearly a decade, but isn’t much of a “robot aficionado,” as he put it. Instead, he sees his artforms as a means to an end — a way to create a figure that is just human enough to be relatable but strange enough to be intriguing to a casual observer. His latest exhibit, titled “The Secret Life of Robots,” exemplifies this aspect of Fraley’s work.

The show is a series of domestic scenes depicting the mundanity of everyday life. In it, viewers will find robots vacuuming dirty floors, sleeping on couches and dealing with other trivial issues that befall most of us.

Fraley emphasized that though this visually arresting juxtaposition of the drolly human and the intriguingly robotic is the focal point of the project, its goal is to bring attention to the overlooked moments in our lives..

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“The [robot] passed out on the couch, I don’t think people would expect something like that to be in a show,” Fraley said.

Fraley’s found-object art — a process that involves taking old objects and retrofitting them for new purposes — is as much a tribute to the Americana aesthetic as it is to human nature itself. For Fraley, making his robot sculptures involves hours of poring over yard sales and antique shows in order to find the perfect materials for his robots.

“I like using vintage, just kind of Americana stuff. The style was better, and the materials were better,” he said.

Despite all of the work that goes into collecting materials to form his robots, Fraley aims to create works that avoid making the “found” aspect of his found-object art obvious to the viewer.

“I want them to see the piece first and then realize it’s made out of found objects,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Fraley has used his found-object robots to challenge the city of Pittsburgh. His first public art piece, “Fraley’s Robot Repair,” was a smashing success after opening Downtown last year and took his decade-old project and made it public. 

“I was really shocked when my robot repair shop went up and the reception that it received. It was a fake business based on something that nobody really needed,” he said.

Both of these exhibits are built upon the same essential concept: using an outlandish creation to make overlooked parts of human life more interesting.

“I make approachable art. It’s not so esoteric and strange that the average person can’t appreciate it,” Fraley said.