One piece evokes an old-fashioned Erector set, another brings to mind a vintage whirligig. Among the found objects that the artist — a 2012 MFA graduate of American University — uses as his material, you’ll find baseballs and bats, music-box mechanisms and plastic-foam airplanes. Four of the nine sculptures are interactive; visitors are encouraged to play with them by manipulating hand cranks and pedals, a joystick or a sledgehammer.
But it’s not exactly Funland.
Beneath the superficial whimsy of Hager’s show, “Between Fact and Fiction,” there lies a sense of latent menace, even violence. One of Hager’s sculptures, “Labor Day,” is an ordinary baseball and bat that have been transformed into a spiky, lethal-looking flail by the addition of sharp drill bits and a heavy chain. Elsewhere in the show is a work made from a hatchet. (It’s called “Recess,” in an evocation of schoolyard mayhem.) Another features a pair of hedge loppers, made grimmer by a title it shares with a famous song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.”
The longer and the deeper you look, the less innocent Hager’s art looks.
Even the objects that are meant to be touched — a mechanical spine, for example, whose vertebrae have been fashioned from 13 tiny music boxes, and a carousel of toy airplanes spinning overhead — hint at darker themes. Decorated with military insignia, those airplanes go round and round in a vicious circle, each one hunting another in endless, even pointless, pursuit. As for that mechanical spine, it protrudes from the back of a dressmaker’s mannequin, the fabric skin of which has been laid bare, as if by an orthopedic surgeon.
Even the tunes that the music boxes play — “You Are My Sunshine,” “Over the Rainbow” and other ditties — sound discordant when altered by the fuzz and reverb pedals that visitors are invited to step on, distorting those cheerful melodies into a cacophonous sonic assault.
One at a time, Hager’s works evoke delight and wonder. Taken together, they call to mind a kind of Frankenstein’s laboratory. But whether their purpose is to amuse, annoy or frighten isn’t clear.
I would argue that “Between Fact and Fiction” is meant to do a little of all three. Or, rather, to engender a feeling that lies somewhere within those extremes. Hager’s work seduces us into entering a space where we aren’t expected to have fun, but rather to have a conversation about such themes as war, mortality and the human condition.
Another of Hager’s works takes its title from a song: “Sergeant Politeness,” which references a tune on the 1996 album “Fantastic Planet,” by the band Failure.
This work, the first sculpture you see when you enter the gallery, calls to mind a humanoid robot; its seven-foot-tall metal framework supports a torso and limbs, made from an assemblage of orthopedic body braces.
The armorlike work, along with its strange title, calls to mind a very specific image: RoboCop, the unfailingly courteous police officer — part-cyborg and part-human — that first appeared in a series of science fiction films starting in 1987.
In the context of “Between Fact and Fiction,” Hager’s work takes on additional associations. Standing in front of it, it’s hard not to think of real-world soldiers whose limbs have been replaced by prostheses.
Through Sept. 6 at Flashpoint Gallery, 916 G St. NW (Metro: Gallery Place). 202-315-1305. www.culturaldc.org. Open Wednesday-Saturday noon to 6 p.m. Free.