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Aye, Robot

Painter Candace Keegan at Play at Queen City Gallery

Looking at Candace Keegan’s work, in her current exhibit at Queen City Gallery, called Play, art patrons might breathe a sigh of relief—for who doesn’t like play? The word’s definitions takes up the best part of two columns in the Oxford English Dictionary: to occupy, to amuse, to perform, to compete, to touch gently, to win favor, to take foolish risks, the spontaneous activity of children or animals, and on and on.

A second viewing might bring up deeper content. The artist has often used familiar childhood toys as connective symbols of human need and desire, choosing the form of a wind-up walking robot as a kind of sandwich board advertisement stating a series of emotional motifs. The robots feature a space for a symbol on the front of the body element having to do with the title identity. Over the years the artist has worked these little figures in all kinds of emotional one-word summaries ending with the suffix “-bot” in an assured, direct painting style characterized by clean, brightly brushed strokes with a clearly representational presence.

While her present issue of subject robots are still nearly identical, the paintings’ backgrounds recently appear to have greater atmospheric density, contributing to a more dramatic frame of reference for her shiny servos. Her range of painted toy objects is by now her signature, from yellow rubber ducks to more complex items recently pink pigs on wind-up toy boats and tricycles posed against an airy pastel background in subtle contrasting hues. Titles phrases such as Sail with me, Baby and Take a ride with me, Baby contribute to a sense of roving animation around the toys, while a feeling of anxiety tends to pervade a particular painting of a robot with a pull toy, a missile on wheels, resembling those in military review on May Day in Moscow. In a continuing effort to create art as two completely different artists—one, here, painting a cast of toy robot figures, the other painting striated abstractions—Keegan seems to strive conscientiously to address a curious juxtaposition in contemporary art-making, creating meaningfully symbolic realms, evoking un-ironic self-discovery with the need to move into compelling issues of the human condition.

Even before the mystique of the robot (in Czech writer Karel Cepek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), from “robota,” forced labor) had fully taken hold with the earlier Jules Verne’s fantasies of automatons, Sigmund Freud had begun to make sense of the incredible mixture of contradictions existing in mind and inner life, creating symbols for isolated aspects of the personality: id, ego, and superego. While establishing separate entities to bring sensible order into the chaos of inner experience was useful for comprehending mental processes, it also undermined the realization that such categories are fiction. That is a problem with “robot art” and its dystopian correspondent, zombie art: A single robot exists in a kind of horror vacui—in a predicament of waiting to do or serve—while in multiples robots only reinforce a sense of conspiracy against sentient beings. The hand-cranked, wind-up toy robot is at odds with the classic automaton’s function, self-actuating utility, in this case a kind of placid billboard mascot for human frailty. The artist must struggle with a desire to speak her truth. (Earlier work often had a long-hand scripted narrative behind the foreground subject matter.) Previously her painted robot toys were cute but mute, relying on a viewer’s indulgence, satisfying a passing delight, a temporary emotional assurance.

But now perhaps one craves the long-term prospects of instruction, investigation, even the contradictory frictions of conflict. Conflict makes for a dissatisfaction with the way things are—inducing one to find other solutions, moving on to the greater enrichment of one’s inner life and a greater examination of outer reality. It is in these aspects that Play continues to advances more meaningful content for the artist’s wind-up wanderers.

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