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Art: Whimsy or Not?

Manifest Gallery has fun with 'Whimsical Muse'

By Laura James · January 3rd, 2007 · Visual Art
  Margot Cormier Splane's
Manifest Gallery

Margot Cormier Splane's "Black and White Tourists Visit Egypt."

Contemporary art comes in sundry forms. Usually, we want it to tell us something -- about politics, about injustice, about the state of the world. The current group show at Manifest Gallery (2727 Woodburn Ave., East Walnut Hills), Whimsical Muse, plays around with that point and makes its own: Contemporary art can also be playful.

The front gallery at Manifest holds 14 works by 12 different artists, a selection chosen out of 180 submissions. The idea was to get a little childish for the holiday season, to allow a little cheerful fantasy into our gallery experience.

The works absolutely deal with whimsy. Rhonda Gushee's plush toys sit stacked on shelves as if in some toddler's playroom.

Margot Comier Splain's ostensibly plain serigraphs have titles like "Black and White Tourists Visit Egypt," which is funny only if you see the image -- a group of zebras carefully examining a wall painting. The brilliant photograph by Wendy DesChene takes advantage of toys' colors. Stacey Holloway's "Sally Chases Butterflies" is a sculpture -- a little girl on a bicycle with a butterfly dangling in front of her -- the proverbial carrot, I suppose.

Everything in here seems bright and relaxed. I could play for hours. And yet there's something off about the whole joyful experience. It isn't perfect. In his curatorial statement, Jason Franz makes the point perfectly: Contemporary art is a lot like catharsis, which translated literally incorporates both comedy and tragedy. So, too, does Whimsical Muse. In DesChene's photograph, for example, the toys look awkwardly sewn together -- as if abused by some mean older brother. They make for an uneasy joy, a little bit of reality amongst the wild swirls of a panic attack.

Gushee's toys are very much the same. "Feel free to touch them!" the sign says. Pick them up. They are not quite dolls, not quite playthings. They are plush figments; they have been broken just to be stitched up and left unrecognizable.

A painting by Beth Edwards creates that same uncertain feeling. It's clearly an image of a child, yet the face is hyperbolized -- the happy wanderer's smile is creepy, her huge eyes focused on something outside our "real" world.

When I get to Christine Marie Davis' installation, "Dessert Fetish," I'm able to put my finger right on the imperfection. Davis has taken ordinary sundae glasses and transformed them (à la Meret Oppenheim's famous Le dejeuner en fourrure, a brazen Surrealistic reference to the vagina) into masses of hair, ready to be eaten like a child's treat.

Granted, "Dessert Fetish" is a throwback to early French Surrealism. But isn't that the point? The entirety of Whimsical Muse, according to Franz, is to make us remember childhood joy. But there is something harrowing in that recollection, something that has to do with the fact that we cannot return. Time is time, and we are all adults now because of it. To remember is not to re-live.

And now Holloway's sculpture, alone in the middle of the gallery, makes more sense. The little girl chasing her butterfly will never catch it, no matter how fast she spins her wheels. (She is, in fact, not able to spin her wheels -- that too is an illusion.)

Little Sally is a lot like we are, driving toward a target that is completely out of reach. Grade: A

WHIMSICAL MUSE continues at Manifest Gallery through Jan. 20.


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