Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

When Whimsy Beats Wit: New Springville Exhibit Keeps It On the Light Side

Gregory Abbott’s “Remlock Too”

Springville’s newest exhibition, Wit and Whimsy: Off the Deep End, is more whimsical than it is witty. The majority of the pieces are fun, lighthearted, and fantastic explorations of curiosity, but, for the most part, they fail to deliver on the exhibition’s promise to expose deeper societal and cultural issues through the lenses of wit and whimsy. While the exhibition descriptions of some pieces attempt to pull the audience towards reflections of self-image, exclusionary communities, and race relations, it feels like with even the most poignant works the artists are pulling punches. What is promised as a smiling-through-sorrow exhibition, ultimately comes up short, relying too readily on the smiles without sufficiently exploring the sorrows.

The creations that do manage to touch on deeper issues lend the exhibition some much-needed life. In particular, the works of Gregory Abbott and Nicolas Courdy both explore a coming-of-age theme and the particular challenges facing teenagers in Utah today. Abbott’s painting “Remlock Too” (2015) depicts the empty room of a teenager. Above the bed is a reproduction of Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” (1781) and a large, mechanical horse and a viciously grinning chimpanzee dominate the room, reflections of the imposing characters in Fuseli’s painting. Abbott’s title also highlights teen loneliness — “remlock” refers to crisis masks worn by airplane pilots in the video game Elite: Dangerous. When it senses danger, the remlock mask creates a sort of chamber where pilots can be sustained physically but become unaware of their surroundings – completely alone. Likewise, many teenagers today feel barely sustained and very alone as they are crippled by ADHD drugs, depression, and fear of exclusion because of their gender and sexual identity. Using Fuseli’s “Nightmare” as a companion piece, Abbott’s work becomes a compelling exploration of teen suicide and sexuality.

Courdy’s contributions also focus on teenage life and sorrows. In his print “growth spurts” (2017), the artist explores teenage relationships to technology and the public domain. Courdy’s artistic MO is to search for public-domain images and combine them into powerful and thought-provoking compositions. Most telling in “growth spurts” is his use of pixelation as a design element in his composition. Imitating video-game imagery, these pixels allude strongly to child- and teen- technology use and the highly debated benefits and detriments of constant internet access. “growth spurts” also brings to mind another form of technology in the lives of teens today–social media. Each time a teenager posts on Instagram for social validation, that image can be used to bully, exploit, and sometimes destroy self-confidence and mental health. Courdy’s use of the public domain causes reflection on personal and family use of social media and the harm that can come from it.

“A Worn Through Soul Hanging onto a Dream” by Cynthia Lewis Clark

Another work of particular note is Cynthia Lewis Clark’s “A Worn Through Soul Hanging Onto a Dream” (2014), based on Maya Angelou’s poem “Tears.” The encaustic work depicts an androgynous figure holding desperately to a rail, a giant hole punched through its body. The depiction is indeed whimsical but the humor is cut cleanly by a poignant feeling of desperation as the figure tries desperately to cling onto life, ambition, family, sanity, citizenship, or myriad other real, difficult human experiences. Though it seems that the figure cannot possibly hold on any longer, that its dream already has died, there is a sense of hope that it will again pull itself to its dream and achieve the impossible.

Works like these, however, are the exception, and, overall, the exhibition is a curatorial disappointment. Many of the artworks by themselves make for compelling and powerful depictions of deeper issues, but the way the show is curated trivializes these important artworks and issues. For the most part, Wit and Whimsy is a fun, family-friendly exhibition for people who enjoy looking at paintings of cute animals, friendly faces, and colorful monsters. The questions on the gallery plaques designed to help guide discussions are perfect for ages 2-8, but fail to engage an older audience, or to seriously delve into the issues the show description promises: “death, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.” With more straightforward literature and description, it could be a powerful collection of images to inspire viewers rather than a carnival spectacle. It could offer a guide to those facing challenges to look for the joy and humor in even the darkest moments of life.

Wit and Whimsy: Off the Deep End is at the Springville Museum of Art through May 19, 2018.

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