At a time when the art world is experiencing a major financial crunch and arts-related news is particularly bleak, Spruill Gallery was inspired to turn a negative into something positive. The result? An artistic stimulus exhibition titled “PLAY.” The exhibit features national and local artists who explore the relationship between art and play. As the viewer walks through Spruill, the artists’ creative enjoyment is palpable. Their energy combines with the viewer’s own curiosity to create an engaging, and at times physically interactive, experience.
The artists in “PLAY” explore diverse media. Staci Stone’s Inverted Umbrella uses one of the more unusual materials—children’s drawings cut and then folded into small pieces. This large sculpture is whimsical yet imposing, a quality enhanced by its upside-down installation. The umbrella’s intricately detailed construction is awe-inspiring. The texture and patterns created by Stone’s deconstructed drawings activate the surface, making the work a visual treat. Across the room, cut-up children’s drawings and instructions are available for those who would like hands-on experience folding paper like that used in Inverted Umbrella.
Taylor Davidson’s three-wall coloring space presents another opportunity for participation. The artist invites children and adults to color; some have even added their own words and drawings. On the lawn outside the gallery, more interactive play is to be had: visitors can beat George Long and Mario Schambon’s metal sculpture, Bembe, with the provided drumsticks.
Like Bembe, John Douglas Powers’ multi-media machines are in large part inspired by music. Undulations is viewer activated with a switch. When it is turned on, the planks slowly ripple while scraping across a piece of wood. The combination of kinetic visual beauty and auditory irritation animates the gallery space. Undulations’ form and sound compliment the motorized bow of the nearby Violinist, thereby creating an unusual object-based performance within the gallery space.
In another room, visitors can press PLAY to hear Dick Robinson’s audio experimentation that includes snippets of dialogue and laughter. The result is cartoon-like, making its inclusion in the same space as Philip Carpenter’s drawings of cartoon characters and toys particularly appropriate.
I first thought Carpenter’s works were photographs, and I liked them for their iconic presentation of enlarged toys. They have a strong, somewhat disturbing presence. When I read one of the labels and discovered that these works are drawings made with colored pencil, I was even more impressed. (Well, okay, that’s stating it lightly: I was floored!)
My favorite drawing by Carpenter in “PLAY” is After Dürer (top of post). The artist pairs a bug-like toy with a drawing of a beetle—his own facsimile of a work by Albrecht Dürer. I appreciate the open-ended dialogue Carpenter encourages by combining a toy and a work of fine art. Although the sources are centuries apart, the two insects resonate and even seem to commune. But wait … Is the toy licking its lips in anticipation of a Dürer beetle meal?
Though less complex than Carpenter’s After Dürer, Jason Fulford’s stark yet quietly amusing photographs operate in a similar manner: the deeper implications of their seemingly mundane scenes become apparent after a few seconds of study. Brooklyn shows a staircase … completely submerged in sand (rendering the staircase nonfunctional). Similarly, Montauk is a sparse bathroom scene, a literally mirrored image … with wood knots for eyes, and toothbrush holder hands.
Artists throughout “PLAY” prove that everyday scenes and items can be turned into art. Inspiration can come from anywhere, even from something as commonplace as one’s own workspace. John Douglas Powers’ animated short film The Collector proves this: the items on his worktable are the focus. Powers has simulated his workspace in the gallery so viewers can get a real sense of his source of inspiration. They can also use the provided tools and materials to make their own creations.
In terms of video, “PLAY” also includes more than 20 one-minute shorts curated by Avantika Bawa. One of my favorites in this collection is Brian Zanisnik’s Hiding Behind a Brick Wall. In two street scenes, a person stands or lies down while holding a drawing of a brick wall that covers only their upper torso and head. Curiously, many passers by don’t even notice. The reactions of those who do, on the other hand, are hilarious. I also enjoyed Katya Moorman and Karen Dunn’s Bubblicious, with its hula-hooping subject, colorful dissolve imagery, and (of course) bubbles.
Finally, another of my favorite works is George and Sylas Long’s Produce. The winged wheelbarrows illustrate that, while work can be enjoyable, humans use their imaginations to make drudgery more tolerable. Produce also reminds us that the simple things in life, like fresh produce, can bring great pleasure. Each wheelbarrow is a container garden that will grow and change throughout the work’s installation.
During these trying times that are wreaking financial and psychological havoc on many of us, I applaud the Spruill Gallery’s artistic take on “economic stimulus.” “PLAY” is enjoyable, plus it encouraged me to expand my definition of “play” during a relatively bleak time in United States history. Adventure (a form of play) is readily available and free for the taking.
“PLAY” is on view at Spruill Gallery through Sat. Apr. 25. This Sat. Apr. 4, from 2-4PM, the gallery will host an artist talk followed by a performance by Dick Robinson and Jerry Cullum.