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Play is the thing

Alicia Marvan Exhibit
Play is the Thing
An engaging show at Buffalo Arts Studio

The common theme of the two-artist show at Buffalo Arts Studio is play. Play materials in a play environment in the case of artist Alicia Marván. And kid art—which is to say, pre-conceptual art—in the case of artist Barbara Buckman.

More to it than just pre-conceptual in the Buckman case, but the pre-concept concept is at the core of the matter. And more to it than just play in the Marván case—just because play isn’t all that simple—but about play first and foremost.

The play environment is like a kindergarten classroom at the end of the school day, just before cleanup time (whoever might have the cleanup task). The floor strewn with yellow foam plastic strips cut along the edges in large-scale dovetail patterns such that strips can be fitted together ad infinitum. You could make a wall-to-wall carpet of this stuff. Then have the visceral satisfaction of tearing it apart again when you’re finished. Playing to learn, about feathers, or zippers, or DNA, how that goes together. Another kind of building blocks.

Other playthings, on tables, include some smaller-scale dovetail strips, and some pretty hard to manipulate pseudo-toys, little plastic triangles that look like you could make some sort of geodesic structure of them, but how do you get them formed and stabilized into a structure? Little metal clips in perforations on some of the triangle points are more frustrational than functional when you try to work them. Also, little cones of Teflon material that you might try to make something of, but hard to imagine what, beyond a slightly different jumble mass of little cones of Teflon. Another table features some more or less banana forms of a kind of plastic screen material. For what play purpose, though?

Barbara Buckman Exhibit

More interesting are some oddment materials presented together with a magnifying glass for close inspection. A little pile of rock salt chunks about the size of the end of your thumb, a little pile of silkworm cocoons, a tangled mass of tailor’s measuring tape, another tangle of tickertape paper.

Signs all around tell you to have fun with this stuff. “The artist invites you to engage the artwork—play.” And if you can’t figure out how, some sketch illustrations on the wall of people playing with the foam yellow strips.

Buckman’s works start with maps as often as not. Vague, obscure, washed out as to particulars, but just enough remaining sometimes to identify not the map as locational instrument but the map genre. Civil War maps in a couple of instances, showing troop battle line arrays, blocky residential areas, terrain, hills, watercourses, not in anything like regular and consistent map layout, but such features sprinkled here and there about the artist’s canvas. Then oversprinkled with a scatter array of formally regular—for the most part—shapes and forms. Pure geometrics, grids of one sort or another, conduits, connections, disconnections, some of what look like Lego blocks. In pleasant pastel colors. Orange to yellow, green to blue.

And over the top of all this—not in all the works, but in a large number—and this is the feature you go away remembering, the pre-conceptual but rational feature amid the otherwise jumble array—kid scribbles, in heavy pencil, like a carpenter’s pencil. Just the way a kid would do it—little kid, not an eight-year-old, maybe a four-year-old. Not scribbles for the sake of scribbles—not tornado scribbles, made to make a mark but also make a mess—but first time trying to draw scribbles. So no concept of how to draw, except to imitate, not other drawing, but some form, maybe some object. With whatever implement, but a pencil—thick pencil—is probably easiest to come by and easiest to manipulate.

Beautiful art underneath, the maps and sprinkle additions, even if inscrutable—a little like looking at a computer chip, trying to see what’s going there, but messier—and authentic-looking kid scribbles on top. Primitive art not of the past but the present. Art as initial impulse to art. Beautiful and most interesting.

The Alicia Marván and Barbara Buckman exhibits run through July 1.

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