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Didi Dunphy's thought provoking works at whitespace include hearts and rainbows (Photo by Emily Sorgenfrei)

Review: Three exhibits at whitespace gallery are playful, thought provoking

The three exhibitions at whitespace and the adjacent whitespec and shedspace through September 4 offer the best possible combination for this difficult August — they can be taken as lighthearted amusement even as they remain seriously thought provoking.

Didi Dunphy’s diverse collection of artworks titled Wishful Thinking is as lighthearted as any unrealistic dream ever was, and that’s its charm and its edge simultaneously. A multicolored maypole with streamers competes for attention in the front gallery with a transparent plastic valentine heart on a tripod, and in the adjacent gallery space ladders lead upward to nothing more substantial than a cloud in one case and a rainbow in another. A silver bucket has become a receptacle for rainbow wafers. A sign spinner, shown in a video, displays words of optimism that seem as groundless as his frantic yet skillfully graceful gyrations in a frequently fruitless quest to command attention in a distracted world.

It all seems like a candy-colored display of futility, except that it also incorporates major technical accomplishments in crafts that are traditionally dismissed as “women’s work,” alongside successes in sculptural balance that required considerably sophisticated feats of physical fabrication. The underlying message seems to be the one that Dunphy spells out in her artist’s statement: “It’s hard for a woman to make it. It’s hard for this body to keep up. It’s hard to fix things. I can just cross my fingers that it will get better. And in the meantime, let’s have a lot of fun.”

Samuel Stabler uses ink, acrylic and intricate hand cut paper in his pieces. (Photo by Jerry Cullum)

This combination of meticulous craft with playful yet occasionally dark wit is continued in the quite different work of Samuel Stabler in his whitespec project room show, Real Estate Disputes. Rendered in ink and acrylic plus dazzlingly intricate hand cut paper, absurdly improbable combinations of popular culture images, from guns to motorcycles, appear amidst cheerful backdrops of leaves and flowers and the occasional perching bird, all in a pleasing yet almost jarringly unrealistic palette. Stabler, like Dunphy, resides in Athens (where Dunphy has been an active and central presence on the art scene for some decades), but it is difficult not to imagine an intangible influence from his graduate study at Central Saint Martins, the London art school currently best known for having produced the darkly transgressive fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Sarah Hobbs’ and Hannah Israel’s “Mimesis” installation in shedspace completes this trio of questions about the hidden depth of what looks superficially like feel-good escapism, and on one level really is that. It is hard not to be cheered up by a small garden building completely covered in bright green foil strips that interact with the surrounding greenery of the landscaping. It becomes even more alluring once the viewer’s attention becomes focused on a succession of video-clip images projected on the interior back wall of the shed, all of them featuring the color green in one way or another. When the green objects or backgrounds are the dominant subject, the whole interior shed space is bathed in green light from the screen.

Hobbs’ and Israel’s mesmerizing video installation “Mimesis” in shedspace (Photo by Jerry Cullum)

It quickly becomes impossible not to notice the alternation between natural and fabricated objects in the projected images, plus the in-betweens of things like the cultivated branches of bonsai. Some of the images invite more scrutiny than the viewer is given time for, and others are of a simplicity that make them seem to linger a bit longer than would normally seem appropriate.

In spite of these minor annoyances, or perhaps because of them, the scene is mesmerizing – I found myself waiting for an image to come around again in the sequence, to catch details I’d missed. All of this has been carefully choreographed by Hobbs and Israel, who state that their purpose is to investigate “the fleeting nature of human experience, the intersection of what’s real and simulated. Ultimately, the installation is a psychological space, inviting viewers to a new understanding of the shape of all things.”  That the whole installation is also gorgeous and happiness-inducing is only a side benefit. Or is it an inbuilt feature?

Whether you take these three exhibitions as a momentary respite from the rest of the world or explore them in thoughtful depth, they provide a gratifyingly complex experience that makes the visit well worth it.