Artscope Magazine: Toys and Games

By James Foritano
January and February 2012 volume 6 number 6

Your sober art reporter thought he escaped to Storyland upon entering the modestly scaled environs of Somerville’s Brickbottom Gallery to view “Toys and Games.” In through the front door, past the seating arrangement in the lobby, a sharp right and… there they all were.

Entranced, I didn’t need coaxing to accept Curator Pier Gustafson’s offer to ride one of the “toys”. As I straddled Jeff Smith’s “Slick Willie,” instinctively gripping onto dolphin-slick sides, I realized that I had laid aside my clipboard and ballpoint. They say that a man with a clipboard (an early prototype of the iPad) can go anywhere… but apparently not “everywhere.”

I needed all four limbs as I clung, insect-like, to that a moment before had moved my only to contemplation. “Slick Willie,” if it were indeed a one-dimensional child’s toy, would be made of extruded plastic, one of many rolling merrily off an assembly line. But not this “Slick Willie.”

If it weren’t for the sunken nails and visible joinings, one could believe that the curving sides were “woven” rather than painstakingly pieced together by the hands of a woodworker. And, in this reporter’s opinion, that’s how art should be: effort concealed below the illusion — available, even delicately so, to analysis, but only when you are in the mood.

I wasn’t in the mood because, one, I didn’t have my clipboard, and, two, did I mention I was being pulled by the above-mentioned curator, Pier Gustafson? Now, just looking around at the curatorial I could see that Pier had a very tenuous grasp on everyday reality, yet he was the man guiding the rope, leading me grasp “Sick Willie” who, I was sure, submerge any moment into nether regions where only my clipboard would float to the surface.

It must have been the steadying hand of co-curator Jessica Straus that rescued me. Not that Jessica is more hard-headed than Pier when it comes to everyday reality — witness their seamless collaboration in subverting reality. It might have been her female empathy, or the fact that she, too, had been whirled around by Pier — an experience that would awaken empathy in a board.

Anyway, good for me that I landed safely on all fours, there to gaze up at the creations of a wizard who calls himself “Skunk.”

Skunk “repurposes” old machine parts into endearingly menacing figures that, thankfully (I felt at the moment), don’t move or invite one to move. And yet, that are so ingeniously articulated that “Hathor,” for example, and “Lucky,” which stand facing one another, are laden with potential movement. Hathor’s elbow hinges on a gearshift; Lucky’s polished cranium, pregnant with thought, has been refashioned with from the chrome headlight is a long-ago “repurposed” handlebar.

Straus and I agreed that pretty much anything Skunk puts his mind and hand to has “attitude”. Whether it’s Lucky’s out-thrust pelvis or Hathor’s coiled stance, you don’t view them as assemblages — instead you move around them as you would beings with personality and intention.

Julie Levesque’s “Cow” is described as “marble dust and toy.” It doesn’t have any of Skunk’s cunning articulations — and every joint of this “toy” is buried beneath seemingly billions of motes of white “marble dust” — and yet it seems alive enough to moo — eternally.

Sly wit, bold wit, “repurposed” wit, wit full of pathos and point is everywhere, not only evident but tapping you on the shoulder with invitation in this densely layered exhibit. Craig Bloodgood’s multiple examples of games, intriguingly crafted with more or less polish, are downright exhibitionist. I, for example, was pulled over to “love Comptor,” a roulette wheel that wears the elegant calligraphy of its heart on its sleeve. The typeface I’m using doesn’t hint t the rejection of “Loves Me Not,” or the warm acceptance you feel if the wooden arrow you spin click to a stop on a delicately carved “YES.”

Kevin Van Aelst’s “paper” airplanes zoom overhead, proudly displaying their brand names on shirting material. Sewn and buttoned-down, “Old Clothes” carries the rush of wind of wind tunnels where it was birthed. In the video “Lost and Found,” Kim Mikenis fashions brazenly low-tech scenery and characters into a fanciful and poignant narrative.

David Columno’s “Le Train du Cerveau (pour Robert Zanre),” dedicated to friend and fellow artist Robert Warner, rolls quietly through your head on wooden wheels, brushing up against every region of the brain, minutely labelled pennants flying flying in elegy.

Packaging of sinuous basswood caresses pedestrian contents in Jessica Straus’ “BYOB (Bring Your Own Bingo),” compelling you to look again, to re-evaluate the pedestrian. Pier Gustafson’s “Build Your )wn Cunareder” invites you to reconfigure its decks with moveable parts, majestic and tiny.

In “Chicken is the Life of You,” Gina Kamentsky engineers the wheels and gears of that age-old conundrum “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” from theory into satisfyingly hand-cranked contraption, American! Invention! Solves! Problem!

Off in a corner, Brian Winters’ “Que Sera Sera?” places a daringly assembled cast of characters on a trembling stage, dramatizing the hair-trigger point at which our earth’s climate now stands. Also, by a quote from Dr. Seuss, and endless scroll of carbon-black doll’s hair unravels as if to emphasize the “doctor’s” inescapable logic.

My journey, in this second rollicking iteration of “Toys and Games” at Brickbottom, was both intimate and epic. Do go. And if someone offers you a ride, take it!