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With this artist, Home Depot meets Marcel Duchamp

WALTHAM - Tom Sachs is the ultimate do-it-yourself artist. Most artists do it themselves, but Sachs's work, on view in "Logjam," a bracing and funny exhibit at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, embraces the Home Depot-fueled DIY phenomenon with such passion it deliciously skirts parody.

Sachs was something of a phenom when he appeared on the scene with his roughly glued together but amazingly detailed works in the 1990s; his life-size toilets and gun cabinets flew in the face of the glossy art and slick consumerism spawned by that decade's powerhouse economy. His art pulls apart the neatly packaged to show us the plumbing. A joyful zeal underlies every piece in this exhibit, which marries an unapologetic boys-will-be-boys aesthetic with an intellectual rigor that savors bits of cultural history, from Marcel Duchamp to the marketing of the electric refrigerator.

"Logjam," which was organized by the Des Moines Art Center, takes its name from a labeled box Sachs keeps in his studio into which he throws screws, nuts, and bolts that have failed him in the middle of a project. The title, curator Jeff Fleming points out in the show's catalog, exemplifies the artist's process: "He needs to make things; everything else just gets in the way."

The show attempts to re-create the artist's studio. It's not a retrospective; we don't see some of his better-known works, such as "Prada Death Camp," a miniature concentration camp built of Prada hatboxes. Instead we get to peek inside the artist's workspace, and in many ways, his head. These works emphasize utility (the pieces called "work stations") or play and life's necessities, such as eating ("living stations"). Their social commentary is tamer than that of "Prada Death Camp," but still distinct.

"Vader," a hulking black refrigerator Sachs built out of plywood, is named for its size and its hum; former Rose curator Raphaela Platow notes in her catalog essay that at one time, a silent, gas-powered refrigerator competed in the marketplace with the noisier electric icebox. The electric won out because its producers - General Electric and General Motors were two of them - had more clout than the makers of the gas fridge. "Vader" gently tweaks the dark side of capitalism.

Sachs, an inveterate tinkerer, loves to figure out how things are made. He built his own transistor radio, as well as "Lav A2," a life-size airplane lavatory, from foam core. It's one of the artist's sly handmade answers to "Fountain," Duchamp's ready-made urinal. Although it's not to be used in the gallery, the piece is apparently functional, with running water and a wet/dry vacuum hooked up in the rear.

The artist's hand is everywhere here, from the dripping epoxy along the sink to the grime on the floor. The text, written in magic marker, reads as it does in any airplane bathroom: "no cigarette disposal," "soap." It even has an illuminated "return to seat" sign. If you actually sat on the toilet, the foam core might cave in beneath you. Look at the guts of this thing, how easy it is to make, Sachs seems to say, and how ultimately disposable it is.

The work stations include "Million Dollar Desk," an old gray metal office desk Sachs has rejiggered to house a table saw. An industrial work lamp held up by orange-and-white chunks of Con Ed barriers hangs over the desk. He modeled the light after one on a desk he coveted that sold at auction for more than a million dollars. Sachs and his assistants regularly use the table saw for other projects.

"Resin Kit," another work station, features a cardboard box fitted with plastic pump bottles of resin and any kind of tool with which you might spread resin. The detailed, handwritten labels explain how to use the pumps and include a phone number to call for free replacements; "product support is also very good at above number," it reads.

The centerpiece of "Logjam" incorporates several of Sachs's pieces. "Nutsy's Tableau" started out as recreation. The artist and his assistants built a track on which to race Mini-Z remote-control model cars. It includes an "Altitude Generator," a spiral ramp leading to a precipitous drop, and a "Ring of Fire" set up over a propane grill.

Worlds have sprouted up around the track, human-scale and model-scale. The track runs through a tunnel cut out of a refrigerator stocked with Budweiser. A foam-core Mobil station on one side opens on the other to a human-size, tool-laden repair station for the cars. Sachs and company set up video cameras around the track, and "Wall of Surveillance," a giant, daunting grid of scrappy-looking video monitors, looms in the middle of the installation, keeping an eye on every detail.

For Sachs, there are no boundaries between work and play, between art object and toy or tool. They're all the same, and his playfulness and relentless curiosity shine through "Logjam." He must be a happy man.

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Tom Sachs: Logjam

At: Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, through Dec. 16. 781-736-3434, brandeis.edu/rose

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