“Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are preludes to serious ideas.” —Charles Eames
The Difficulty of Play
While North Adam’s MASS MoCA celebrates the grand opening of Building 6 this month, just down the street Gallery 51 embraces its playful side as guest-curator Corwin Levi tackles the most ambitious of art enterprises: participation.
The centerpiece of Babel’s Bricks, a block-themed group show, is a series of pedestals covered with colorful Legos, wooden blocks, Tinkertoys, and other pieces, which the public is invited to assemble into playful configurations. The result is a lively miniature landscape—think Montessori visits the Island of Misfit Toys. Levi, who admits he loved “building new worlds” out of mismatched block sets as a boy, invites us to participate in a social experiment meant to channel our inner child.
After spending three hours at the show’s opening, I concluded that we adults are pretty horrible at play. Even when signage made it clear that visitors were not only allowed to touch the toy blocks, but encouraged to do so, some guests still asked for permission, as though they suspected some cruel artistic prank. Younger viewers, unsurprisingly, didn’t hesitate to dive in. Their impulse to build, destroy, and rebuild came naturally. Play has not yet been schooled out of those young minds, and art-world decorum has not yet instilled a fear of breaking the rules. (I have to wonder if Connecticut artist Bob Gregson has faced similar hurdles with his current interactive show, Out of Order, a “playscape for adults” with colorful moving parts that also relies on audience participation.)
“If there is any difficulty to overcome in this show,” Levi says, “it is that visitors are reluctant to tear down each other’s creations to make something new—and so I occasionally go through the gallery and knock everything over, not unlike the Fraggles do to Doozers’ towers, allowing a fresh wave of construction to rise up.” He attributes this reluctance to a psychic block some gallery visitors have: “Maybe it is like taking the first step into a small vendor’s booth, or making eye contact with strangers on the street, in that committing to engage takes a psychic toll for which we don’t always have the energy.”
Nonetheless, the block stations did become a gathering point in the room and certainly encouraged interaction between strangers, as well as some good laughs whenever towers became too tall, teetered, and tumbled onto the floor. If we struggled to find joy in building and play, we at least found humor and camaraderie in our shared failures.
Hardware and Tube Socks
But this block playscape is only one component of Babel’s Bricks. There is also a metaphorical participatory element to the art itself. For his first of three shows at Gallery 51, Levi invited 20 artists to interpret the idea of artwork as a building block. “I enjoy letting artists whose work I trust play expansively with an idea,” he explains, “which I also find creates more excitement and better work that I can then assemble in a way that makes sense when I hang the show. My hope is this creates a more immersive experience for the viewer where they can swim in the idea rather than seeing it only from one particular angle. When I invited artists to this show, I invited them to see art as an aggregate of metaphorical blocks and asked them how they would visualize that concept through their own practice. The results amazed me.”
By giving the artists the freedom to interpret the show’s theme in fresh ways, the concept of “building blocks” veers into fascinating, unconventional places. This inventiveness is at its most satisfying in works by two artists.
Stephanie Williams’s mischievous mound of carved tube socks, titled “Gym Joy,” recalls a locker room laundry pile. At first glance, the twisted forms resemble wooden banister spindles, but closer examination reveals that any such resemblance is just an illusion. The smooth forms snake and curve, each “sock” expressing its own unique shape far beyond the limited scope of any store-bought spindle. Every component takes hours of work for Williams, who cuts and glues layered timber frames, then meticulously hand carves and sands each piece. When Levi looks at “Gym Joy,” he also imagines “a very unique game of nine pins. The pieces invite the viewer to mentally place them in a variety of creative, engaging, and imaginary spaces.”
Ryder Richards’s four drawings of commonplace hardware items—unified by their glowing, fluorescent orange—are also a knockout. From a distance, the clarity of the objects, and the satisfying shadow cast by the roll of tape, fooled me into thinking the works were photographs. Instead, they are finely executed acrylic and graphite drawings cleverly playing off of the block concept. These objects—an industrial extension cord, clamps, and roll of tape—are both blocks themselves, as well as the glue that allows other systems of blocks to exist in the first place. Levi believes they can be considered visual metaphors and linguistic symbols too, quite literally in the case of the O-shaped tape. Ryder is also a master of titles—“Apocalypse Prevention Kit” for the tape drawing, “Birds of a Feather…Are Stupid Together” for the flock of six clamps, and “Electric Lasso = Disco Power + Impromptu Bondage Maker” for the extension cord. It’s hard to believe so much meaning can be crammed into four drawings of everyday objects.
Megan Suttles‘s installation “Fragmented Memory,” a constellation of aluminum pieces hung together in mobile-like precision, provides the perfect visual anchor for the show. The elegant installation is equally effective from a distance and up close. In both cases, the viewer is drawn into the angular shapes and the eye-catching shadows they cast. They are like stars and planets, forming their own singular universe, with each individual piece holding its own in the context of the whole.
Heidi Pollard’s invigorating “Eames Redux: House of Cards Homage,” brings the gallery’s window to life and provides the perfect transition from the street to the show. The sculpture, comprised of 34 painted, birch plywood cards, can be installed in any combination of those pieces and is a playful tribute to the Ray and Charles Eames’s House of Cards, a card deck printed with colorful designs produced by the Eames studio in 1952. The bright, primary colors in Pollard’s piece may be reminiscent of children’s toys, but the oversized scale and material suggest something more. This artwork is the perfect expression of the Eames’ quote, “Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are preludes to serious ideas.”
In spite of the light-heartedness on view in Babel’s Bricks, “serious ideas” are certainly at work. The title references the Tower of Babel story from the book of Genesis in which the people of the world come together, speaking one language, in order to build a great tower that reaches to heaven. “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly,” says the book of Genesis. “They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.” When God sees these united humans accomplishing their task, he responds by scattering them across the earth and splitting one language into many different tongues. “We live in a diverse world where we can accomplish tremendous things together not in spite of our differences, but because of them,” Levi explains, elaborating on his concept for the show:
We take different viewpoints, ideas, and ways of thinking to construct something together that is greater than the sum of our parts. We take Babel’s metaphorical bricks, scattered across the planet, and create a new view. For this show, artists—through picture, touch, and sound—have made their own versions of bricks through which, in aggregate, we can start to glimpse something beyond us. And, in tandem, the various toy blocks on pedestals throughout the exhibit encourage viewers to combine tinker toys, wood blocks, Legos, and other materials into something that none of the sets alone can create.
Katie Loughmiller’s artistic contribution heartily embraces this core idea of creating something from scattered pieces. Her video projection shows her shattering ceramic plates and bowls on the street, which resurface in the gallery as broken shards. Viewers are asked to tie these colorful pieces onto a rope, creating what Levi calls “a new, more beautiful whole of disparate colors and shapes that come together in a synergistic display of good energy.”
I found a lot to love in Rodney Carswell’s exquisite series of drawings, titled “Lexicon,” whose exacting, pleasing ink and gouache lines contrast nicely with Afton Love’s floating, ephemeral piece, “The Object of Empty Space,” made of graphite, vellum, and beeswax. While Carswell’s ten, non-representational drawings hint at some unknown language (“and what is language if not a series of blocks constructed together according to certain rules” says Levi), Love’s work eschews language and communication in favor of the void, specifically the natural hole in a New Mexico rock formation. Love plays with the void, however, by designing her piece to be reconstructed into a new arrangement each time it is shown. Levi has rearranged her drawings like a game of Tangrams, recomposing their original shape into an even more abstracted form. The scrambled, black hole is reminiscent of Rorschach imagery, ; it’s a simple concept elevated by Love’s masterful technical execution.
“The Cube,” a performance and video piece by Brittany De Nigris, is also a dynamic addition to Babel’s Bricks and another personal favorite. The block has a long history in art, and has brought us creations as diverse as the Egyptian pyramids and Sol LeWitt’s cube sculptures to Mondrian’s paintings. De Nigris’s idea of liberating this form on the Nebraska prairie, like a corralled wild horse suddenly released back into the wild, certainly has its appeal. We watch helplessly as strong winds send a giant, 10x10x10′ cube of steel and parachute fabric hurtling across the Midwestern landscape. Only human intervention can stop the massive rolling block on its destructive path. Levi elaborates: “‘The Cube’ reminds us that, as we create new forms, the power in their possibility is matched by the power of unintended consequences and that once we have made something it immediately has a life of its own.”
To the Woods and Back Again
Nature is also a touchstone in Roger Feldman’s wooden maquette and wall-piece, Sarah Burris’s cloud and cat collages emblazoned with gold leaf, and Maggie Gourlay’s “A Few Weeks in the Life of a Plant,” which uses leaves as both building blocks and a way of measuring time. Natasha van Netten‘s grid of 78, hand-drawn orcas pinned to the wall simultaneously represent individual whales, as well as a whole species. (There are only 78 wild Southern Resident Killer Whales remaining).
Pam Rogers is known for her use of natural materials and “Plantae” is some of her strongest work to date. Constructed on six block panels, Rogers creates her own interconnected world using plant, soil, and mineral pigments alongside more traditional art materials like graphite, ink, and gold leaf.
The only nature in evidence in Matthew Northridge’s sculpture, “Here it Is (Right Where You Left It),” is the artificial kind. Northridge, whose New York show, contained numerous block-like collages and sculptures, has taken his work in an entirely new direction with a humanoid, block figure bursting at the seams with artificial grass. Smartly situated nearby is Max Spitzer’s “Studio Construction” comprised of dried knotweed, resin, laser-cut, acrylic connectors, wood, plaster, and “one very nice broomstick…found in the woods.” The result is a singular whole that happily never escapes the individualism of its unique parts.
Blocks, Bricks, and What Comes After
Artists Caleb Taylor, Paul Inglis, and Sarah Fagan share a love for both layers and formalism. Taylor’s cut-out, layered, black-and-white photographs play with illusionistic space and scale to make us question what is real and what is perception. Inglis, who has traditionally worked with colorful, three-dimensional blocks, experiments with the woodblock print in a new series of 2-D work, creating playful layers of color that could be the view from any different number of angles and spaces. Fagan traces stacked layers of broken-down soap, vitamin, and chocolate boxes, giving them a hypnotic new life with colored pencil.
Stacking is also a theme in Susan Dopp’s piece. By pairing a watercolor diagram for a stacked tower of boxes with a hand-altered photo of the final piece, in which the actual boxes have been obscured with paint, Dopp transforms literal stacking into metaphorical stacking. Dopp’s piece references blocks in several phases: a plan for construction; literal, painted, cardboard boxes; and, in the combination of these elements, one artwork. “The pieces work in tandem as a statement to the beauty of our plans,” Levi says, “the possibility of failure, and our unique ability to adapt to our situation and create something more spectacular than our original (now failed) plan.” Next to Dopp’s work is the small print, “Printing on Decline in America (Tai Chi),” by Marc Ganzglass, which serves as a coda to the show. Levi sees the silhouetted individual intervening into a brick wall with a light saber, can of spray paint, or some other mechanism, as a reminder that “creation and destruction are necessary partners and we, as a species, have the power to both create and destroy.”
Babel’s Bricks is a satisfying show both visually and intellectually. It proves that limitation can be liberating when it’s done well. Clearly Corwin Levi is not risk averse, for coordinating such a show can be hazardous to a curator’s health. (As the famous saying goes, “Never work with animals or children.” They are unpredictable and always steal the show.) To invite the public to participate in an artwork, while also giving 20 artists free reign to create and submit work of their choosing within a confined theme is certainly a risk, but it’s also a risk worth taking, as some of these enchanting pieces prove. Maybe we, the public, with our reluctant, careful piles of blocks, can learn a lesson or two. Work and play do not have to be opposite impulses. As the artists of Babel’s Bricks demonstrate, it is when work and play merge that we discover our most inventive selves.