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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.

Hannah Sandorf Davis is pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts at Brigham Young University. She is also a journalist for the BYU College of Humanities.

4 replies »

  1. I’m a little confused by this review – your thesis seems to be that the exhibition lacked depth or actual emotional punches, yet you only touch on works that you enjoyed. Where are your points to support your thesis? In what way does the curation trivialize the themes?

  2. This was one of the most beautifully curated exhibitions I have seen. Every piece added depth and strength to the thesis of the show. Perhaps if you go into such an exhibit with a teenage or “2-8” perspective, you miss the deeper meaning. I would encourage you to spend time in this show and really look at everything it has to offer. Those “cute animals” and “colorful monsters” have a great deal to say. This article does not reflect the experience I had in viewing this exhibition.

  3. I respectfully disagree with your review. It seems in your search for deeper meaning with this exhibit, you have missed the mark. Although you have a right to your own interpretation of each piece of art, I would encourage you to speak with the artists themselves so you could begin to see through their lens, the meaning of their work. I think as you engage in this process, you will not only have a deeper appreciation for their work but you will gain a deeper understanding of it as well. All the things you say this exhibit was lacking was right before you, but you did not partake.
    I would liken your review to one throwing rocks at the ocean and then walking away saying the ocean has nothing to offer. If this same rock thrower would be willing to learn how to snorkel or scuba dive, this person would have a different experience of the ocean and discover a world that is rich and vibrant.

  4. Dear Ms Davis, I suggest that your definition of ‘wit’ is far too narrow. Wit refers to humor, mostly written but also expressed in other arts. It may or may not be a reflection of emotional or physical trauma, but certainly angst is not a requirement of wit.
    You seem to have missed Brian Kershinek’s multiple drawings about death. Humorous, yet about a subject deep enough for anybody. In fact, as I looked at each part of the whole piece, I wondered how someone could make it witty and yet – death as a theme? Yet he did it. Did you take time to study each one? From your review, I think not, since you didn’t give him even a word.
    The artists in this show were invited primarily because they create humorous work. Including me. Maybe you need to take a closer look at everything. In my opinion, it was a good balance.

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