There are two Rube Goldberg machines now on view in “Play,” a big summer group show at the Arlington Arts Center that lives up to its name. A kite the size of a motorcycle has landed in the tree in the front yard. In the basement, there’s a—well, “fun-room” is probably the best way to describe it. And the exhibit is host to one of the best athletic competitions since “Dan & Dave.”
That might be a dated reference for some. “Dan & Dave” was a major Reebok campaign in the run-up to the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona that pitted American decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson against one another in a proto-reality-TV contest for Olympic gold (and MTV glory). Even now, it might be the best lens for understanding the multi-piece, multimedia collaboration by Annette Isham and Zac Willis on view in Arlington, in which the artists compete in three sports: the tomahawk throw, spear hunt, and 40-yard field-goal kick.
The artists talk the talk: “This is for the fans,” says Isham, an artist who falls somewhere between Lena Dunham and Cindy Sherman on the play-acting spectrum, as she prepares to toss a spear at a (fake) wild turkey. “I really want to bring home that W for them.” In videos and portraits, Isham and Willis strike a precious pose, but their commitment to verve in the face of arbitrary exercises is more Bruce Nauman than Wes Anderson.
Steven Jones’ “Yummy Go Round” provides the other laugh-out-loud moment in “Play.” His affection for Hungry-Man frozen dinner-sized portions, from enormous ridable chicken legs to motorized corns on the cob, reminds me of the way Ken Kagami uses strawberries and bananas to illustrate his disturbing, adult-content drawings. (Jones’ humor lacks the darkness of Kagami’s, though.) The same goes for Cory Oberndorfer’s self-explanatory yard works: “Kite,” “Lawn Dart,” and “Frisbee,” each one spanning at least 8 feet. “Play” is plenty playful, but it isn’t balanced by the uncertainty built into genre. It’s missing the terror of fairy tales, the horror of carnivals, and frankly, the formal edge of Pop Art.
But “Play” makes up for a lack of depth with spot-on execution. You want thingamabobs? Catherine O’Connell’s got plenty. Both she and Randall Lear contribute major installations that are made out of minor sculptures, and all those whatsits look like little sketches of a broader concept. Lear’s installation, “Gaggle of Doohickeys,” takes the form of a wall-mounted, gallery-sized painting (which, unfortunately, cannot escape an undeniable comparison to Elizabeth Murray’s biomorphic-shaped canvases). O’Connell’s pieces, or “stories” (“A Story of Nuance,” “A Genuine Story,” and so on), read like a detailed sketchbook.
A big summer show like “Play” would be incomplete without something viewers could, you know, actually play with. Three works deliver on the fun, starting with the immersive “Carnival Interior” by Scott Pennington, the aforementioned fun-room. Then there’s “Mr. Yums Inc.,” a custom video game that asks visitors to take the helm at Mr. Yum’s factory. I didn’t have the patience for the video game, but artists Jason Corace and Sam Sheffield also built an attached, stimulating Rube Goldberg machine that’s a joy to mess with. Whereas the “Yums” business is refined and polished, “Dwell & Its Occupant,” the other big contraption (this one by Marty Weishaar), is made of fugitive materials. I kept hoping that Weishaar’s machine would fall apart in my hands—a design to thwart a viewer’s expectations for a game.
“Play” asks one serious question: Does the work need the viewer? Is John James Anderson’s artist coloring book incomplete until someone takes a crayon to its pages? Becca Kallem is nearly too straight-faced for this group show, but it’s a good thing that curator Karyn Miller included her mini–solo show of paintings and sculptures. Kallem’s works include bold and soft colors, hard and soft edges, and more or less flat paintings. The axis in her work is experimentation, a catholicism toward form and format that is coalescing into a larger whole.
“Order Box,” for example, resembles a vinyl crate containing wood panels with geometric acrylic tiles. It doesn’t seem like a work that could be made by the same painter responsible for “Can’t Stop,” a large symbolist abstraction. The more Kallem explores the Tetris tangrams common to her works, the closer she gets to expressing a style built on play—which looks like hard work.
3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Free. (703) 248-6800. arlingtonartscenter.org