Alice in Museumland:
"Fun & Funky" at the BMAC
"Fun & Funky: Pop for a New Century" (and its companion exhibits) broke all records for local attendance during the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center's opening reception for the 2005-06 season in May. The exhibition is both fantastically playful and aesthetically probing. Featured are pieces created by five talented sculptors whose work refers to traditional elements of American Pop Art while engaging in expressive means of both modernist and post-modernist installation. Viewers both new to contemporary art and steeped in historical aesthetic discussion will find this show humorous and challenging.
. . . Sipping her smoothie from the Brattleboro Co-op, Alice sat in Plaza Park, gazing at the emerald mountain towering over the slow-moving, laconic river on a basking summer noon. She clearly remembered seeing the woodsy sticks and vine-like whirly twigs which had seemed to grow slowly into a mythical tower during a previous season in this very park ("The Cure," 2002-05, Patrick Dougherty).
The Southern Vermont weather had turned hot of late, and Alice had tired of waiting five minutes for the weather to change, as locals said it would. In the midday humidity, the morning mists seemed not to quite have dissipated. She gazed across the street at the historic railroad station and saw a large star, of domes and lights, flying over the entrance ("Daisy Light," 2004, Johnny Swing). She thought of the cool stone floors and comfortable atmosphere of the quiet museum and said to herself, "Oh, my goodness, wasn't that a white rabbit that just ducked inside?"
A few moments later, Alice stepped into the vast lobby of the ancient railroad station. "It is quieter, cooler and wondrous here," she thought to herself. Immediately in front of her was a sensuously curved and rounded couch, made entirely of nickels! "I could lie down there right now," she thought. A few steps away from the Henry Moore-ish couch stood an equally unusual chair, comprised of jars with lids, all upside down and pulling and pushing at her desire to sit. "What could I put in the jars? Perhaps each thing could be worth exactly one nickel!" The ordered glass surfaces reflected the sunlight back at her. ("Nickel Couch," 2004, and "Jar Chair," 2005, Johnny Swing)
Alice's sandaled feet stepped a few paces farther and seemed as though they had shrunk to a tiny size. Looming expansively in front of her was a massive pair of luscious black shoes. Her widening pupils focused more intently. "Oh, my gosh!" she exclaimed. "They're made of licorice!" Alice licked her lips as she walked around the shoes and bent over to inhale their anise odor.
Next, at her feet, Alice saw some shreds and shavings that seemed to be fallen refuse. Looking directly up, she spied a surrealistic construction, a familiar form created with bamboo, rice paper and lights. Still feeling slightly "ajar," she glanced at the informative Museum handout. "This must be 'Toilet, Toilet'! Yes, certainly. Of course." ("Toilet, Toilet," 2002, Andy Yoder)
And now came a sensation that made her feel like a dormouse. The scale of the Braided Rug-Doorstop ("Number One Whopper," 1999, Andy Yoder) made the world seem enormous. The giant projectile reminded Alice somehow of her grandmother's house, and her bare feet on the knuckly surface of the old braided rug. Alice had been a child then, and her childhood memories now surfaced in dreamlike manner. In front of her swam the multiple, rounded, red rectangles of a myriad of Etch-a-Sketches, all filled with interrelated drawings ("Butterflycator," 2005, Cynthia Houghton). These were fantastic, like diagrams and anatomical descriptions of plant-machines and alien contraptions. "Everyone does Etch-a-Sketch," she thought, "but who on the planet could have done these?" They seemed so perfect, and oblivious to space and time.
Alice stepped gingerly up the marble steps. Suddenly, in years she was again less than ten, surrounded by a ballet of Barbies floating in synchronized swim ("Water Ballet Barbies," 2005, Cynthia Houghton). Her experience was turning rather surrealistic. She saw herself as a giant swimmer with virtual flippers in an indoor pool or aquarium, drifting over an ancient Atlantis made entirely of plastic hair rollers and roller picks ("the lost city of affected...," 2003-05, Thad Simerly). "Curiouser and curiouser," she mused. "Is it aquatic post-mod?"
Alice stopped, put a finger at the corner of her mouth, and thought of all the art she'd ever seen. Then, laughing to herself, thought, "I'll have to think about this more later!"
Now turning, she found herself being drawn towards a huge flower-like mandala made entirely of fluffy chenille stems, or pipe cleaners ("Doily: A Thing of Beauty for the Pleasure of the Work," 2005, Ginger Ertz). Studying the fluffy, organic shapes around her head, she swam in what seemed like . . . "A world of snow flakes!" exclaimed Alice.
The hot, humid day had temporarily disappeared. Alice felt whimsically transformed by "Fun & Funky."
She stopped and stared deeper into the intoxicating museum. On her left was a room full of Emily Mason's expressive colorist prints. Beyond, lay a room full of diverse approaches to the still-life and an eclectic collection of prints from Peter Pettengill's Wingate Studio. Alice continued in . . . unseen.
Falling on the heels of the recent exhibition "Andy Warhol: Intimate and Unseen" (2004-05), "Fun & Funky" strives to be consistent in a curatorial sense while drawing on the ever-growing cornucopia of Southern Vermont talent and vision. Works referred to the Warhol show by the use of familiar materials as both subject and venue. A Claes Oldenburg scale was quite present, and while a quiche sensibility was happily skirted, surrealism was quoted freely. The hanging toilet piece seemed to cross the sensibilities of Marcel Duchamp and Lenore Tawney.
Many of the large works were created especially for this exhibit. Most of the artists in the lobby are familiar to the Brattleboro arts community from previous local shows.
Besides obvious homogenous character (in four directions), "Fun & Funky," curated by Mara Williams of Arts Bridge for the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, was decidedly unself-conscious and clarified a point about the evolving role of conceptual installation in art.
Early Modernist Installation artists introduced visual environments that encompassed the viewer as a conceptual experience and also seemed open-ended in a definitive sense, leaving the observer with much to think about. Later, in the nineties, Post-Modern Installation artists not only limited the experience, creating simple juxtapositions of previously used concepts presented in new "contexts," but also quite cleverly tried to "package" the installation, making some aspect of it purchasable or collectible. This made Installation into a finite experience, where the viewer often felt "smarter than the art," rather than challenged.
The exhibition "Fun & Funky" shows that in a post-Postmodern moment, installation has finally lost its "deer in the headlights" self-consciousness, becoming an expressive element in the hands of the artist, such as materials, scale, color, subject matter, or the illusion of space. And in this enjoyable exhibit, it's finally something we're used to."
Copyright 2005, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont