Saturday, December 18, 2010

REVIEW: Three new child-friendly exhibits at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center

By Jamis Lott

It is always a comfort to visit a museum that houses a childishly playful exhibit. I am pleased to announce that, from now till the 6th of February, the Brattleboro Museum has several such exhibits that create a playful and inviting museum experience. People who want their kids to develop a respect for museum art should consider this opportunity, and especially take notice of the three artists I have highlighted in this article.

The first of these exhibits, housed in the main gallery upon entry, is Gerb’s Gadgetry, the creation of Steve Gerberich. At first the collection of composite sculptures made up of toys, antiques, appliances and junk resemble still and serene settings, as well as imaginative instruments. But these sculptures wait for someone to press the clearly visible button featured in front of them, which brings the sculptures to life. Doors open, flamingos flap their tennis racket wings, lights blink, gears turn, balls roll, feet stomp and bells ring.

But even without movement, the sculptures – ranging from a mad scientist laboratory with head-swapped toys, to a functioning wood shop – have so many features and props within them that there is already a surplus of detail to take in. Also, it is fun to guess what parts of each sculpture will come to life once activated.

Devices like the Glam-o-Matic, a large purple box armed with an assortment of grooming devices, resemble equipment in a Dr. Seuss book. Each display is ingeniously powered using pulleys, ropes, levers, gears, and an assortment of parts. With the sculpture Pigs Hosting a Tea Party, 14 separate components run off of a single turning crank rigged with ropes that are pulled as the crank makes its rotation. There is a clear sense of adult imagination that goes well with the patience and creative engineering skills each work obviously took to make.

In a smaller wing of the Brattleboro Museum is the work of D.B. Johnson and the illustrations from his picture book, Palazzo Inverso.

The book and illustrations follow the journey of a child named Mauk who explores a world designed under the influence of M.C. Escher’s unreal realities. Johnson devised a book that could be read upside down or right side up, so the pictures on display can be viewed either way. Despite being created as a children’s book, the bulk of the work has no trouble appearing in a museum setting.

Johnson’s storybook vision features the maze-like scenery and conceptual designs that Escher commonly used, yet obviously adapted to Johnson’s own style. The completely black and white characters, scenes and props are simple in design, yet Johnson’s use of value and shading brings the complexity of the work to its own impressive dimension. Townspeople pull wagons vertically, neighbors gossip from windows upside-down to each other, floor lamps become ceiling lamps and the idea of gravity becomes fiction.

In addition to D.B Johnson’s pictures, the exhibit houses a small kids’ table that offers the chance to color in ambiguous Escher patterns and create mobius fish from strips of paper.

The last exhibit I would like to mention is the architectural reliefs/paintings of Eric Sealine. I include this in the group of child-friendly exhibits because the work shares the same engaging wonder of a pop-up book.

Sealine’s work plays with depth perception by actually building dimensional features that rise a few inches from the wall, but create the illusion of much deeper space. Bookshelves stick out of inverted corners of a room, windows have an outside world beyond their Plexiglas glaze, and handcrafted pencils and paintbrushes cast actual shadows against the cylindrical sides of coffee cups. Even the illusion of papers being blown by an open window is convincing.

The idea that Sealine tackles is highly impressive, mocking most any other attempts to capture depth using flat mediums. The angles of view are incredible and well interpreted, like his image of looking down a stairwell at the ascending railing, or his model of a toy soldier standing in underbrush like an actor amongst stage scenery. What’s more, each piece can be seen from any angle, so the work can be viewed and treated like a sculpture.

One complaint about Sealine is that he seems more gifted in his building skills than his painting. Although the scenes portrayed in each piece are marvelously composed, close inspection of painted features like leaves and floor space seem crudely treated, and lacking in finesse. But when seen at a distance, among so many other details, such painterly flaws are hard to notice.

The three exhibits reviewed here are enchanting, and should be viewed not just by eager and exploring children, but also by adults who may have forgotten how fun and enveloping art can be.

More photos can be seen on the museum's website.