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Art Review: 'Bubblegum Pop,' BCA Center


Published July 14, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 14, 2021 at 11:30 a.m.

"Where the Sun Shines Every Day" by Pip & Pop - COURTESY OF SAM SIMON
  • Courtesy of Sam Simon
  • "Where the Sun Shines Every Day" by Pip & Pop

On a recent visit to the BCA Center, a girl no older than 6 gazed through the window and exclaimed, "Don't you just want to live in it?" She was referring to Pip & Pop's "Where the Sun Shines Every Day," an installation in the downtown Burlington gallery's new group exhibit, "Bubblegum Pop."

Pip & Pop is the working name of Australian artist Tanya Schultz, who finds inspiration in paradise, wish fulfillment, and their embodied forms in myths and fairy tales. In her contribution to "Bubblegum Pop," a seeming childhood utopia is created in stunning detail and cotton-candy colors; mysterious creatures nestle among sugar flowers beneath a sparkling curtain of colored beads and tassels.

This piece, which took more than four weeks to install in the middle of BCA's first-floor, Church Street-facing space — with virtual direction from Schultz — uses sugar, glitter, crystals, gems, foam and beads to dazzling, mesmerizing effect.

Parents may need to hurry young children out of the gallery after one too many attempts to touch "Where the Sun Shines Every Day." The work looks edible, though it certainly wouldn't taste very good. And despite the glitter, darker themes appear. Schultz turns the candy-like nature of the art on its head; viewers are asked to recognize the consequences of vapid, endless consumption.

In the installation, some of the creatures' heads seem to grow among the flowers; others appear to be melting into the floor. All have no features other than eyes; some have no eyes at all. The beaded curtain dangling above it doesn't touch or connect to any of the creatures below.

The duality of "Where the Sun Shines Every Day" exemplifies the gallery's stated themes of "Bubblegum Pop": "nostalgia, youth, optimism, and material abundance as both a celebration and slanting critique on contemporary society."

The simultaneous euphoria and subversive nightmare of Schultz's installation is echoed in two paintings by New Jersey artist Jon Rappleye. Part of his latest collection, called "Pink Elephants," these works explore the confusion and mixed emotions of simply existing in a bizarre reality. Rappleye employs a cartoonish figure with doe eyes and clown shoes to act as a central conduit for this experience.

Rappleye writes of his inspiration: "Old Masters, decorative pastiche, and cartoons are all treated with equal consideration." This hodgepodge of classic realism and graphic and abstract art improbably speaks to innocence and lack thereof.

In Rappleye's "Pocket Full of Posies," the androgynous character looks over its shoulder at a mirror in which a meditative sunset is reflected (and bears a striking resemblance to the view of Lake Champlain from Burlington). As flowers from a vase tumble to the floor, the character's three eyes remain fixed on the mirror; small tears appear on its face. Of all the artworks in this exhibit, "Pocket Full of Posies" most vividly captures the emotional pang of nostalgia.

Rappleye's painting "Loss of Innocence" depicts a character in a static state of competing movements. Marred by brushstrokes, its face seems to melt and fracture, with three eyes looking in different directions and two gaping mouths. A frolicking, rosy-cheeked lamb, tears streaming from its eyes, holds a flower-filled basket in its mouth.

The contrast of emotions here is jarring; Rappleye pairs childlike joy with sorrow and uncertainty. The latter is evident in the main character's feet, which seem to be moving but are headed in different directions — and nowhere at all. The character appears to be in an almost painful state of metamorphosis, from naïveté to worldly understanding.

In the back gallery facing City Hall Park, visitors will immediately be drawn by the sounds of "Wanna Go Dancin (So Far Away)," a song by Vermont/New York City indie-pop band the Smittens. The sextet's ballad is jaunty and light, recalling the bubbly '60s sound of the Monkees.

The pining sense of missed connection and lost time over the bubblegum refrain presents another duality. This soundtrack accompanies a graphic work, essentially a band poster, by member David Zacharis; each player appears in a pink bubble. Drawn in cartoon form, some members are accompanied by furry friends. The illustration is sweetly personal, encompassing the desire of a band, formed in 2002, to return to live performance.

In the same room, large-scale artworks by Vermonters Matt Neckers and Kathryn Wiegers face each other from opposite walls. These artists evoke nostalgia in strikingly different ways to comment on the modern world.

Neckers' multifaceted installation, titled "Perfect World: Familiar Robots and Their Animal Kindred," is arresting in both size and materials. In essence the piece is an assemblage of found metal and wood fragments, painted in bright, primary colors. Small cutout shapes — dinosaurs, trains, planes, a unicorn — suggest a child's art project. And, indeed, the piece has an inviting, playful element: Backed by magnets, all of the figures are movable.

"Perfect World: Familiar Robots and Their Animal Kindred" by Matt Neckers - COURTESY OF SAM SIMON
  • Courtesy of Sam Simon
  • "Perfect World: Familiar Robots and Their Animal Kindred" by Matt Neckers

Ironically titled, "Perfect World" also imparts the concept of lost innocence. Neckers' roles as a teaching artist and a father are clearly influential in his work. If his installation at first glance suggests childlike play, its overall message is dire; most of the figures are interacting violently with each other. The solitary unicorn, in bright white, seems to have an expression of deep sorrow.

Neckers writes that this sculpture evolved from "themes of chaos and helplessness [that he] felt in response to the past year's pandemic and social unrest." His use of juvenile imagery is a powerful tool.

The theme of rapid and unstoppable change, specifically environmental, informs Wiegers' stunning five-panel mural "Fantastic Forest." The self-taught Vermont painter draws both stylistic and thematic inspiration from childhood stories in her depiction of an enchanting forest scene. The fantastical nature of this sun-soaked woodland is exemplified by a seven-foot-tall unicorn with an iridescent mane.

"Fantastic Forest" by Kathryn Wiegers - COURTESY OF SAM SIMON
  • Courtesy of Sam Simon
  • "Fantastic Forest" by Kathryn Wiegers

Other fairy-tale creatures populate the mural, as well: a red-capped gnome, a fluttering fairy, a frog prince with a golden crown. But they inhabit this forest alongside real-world endangered Vermont species. Without human intervention — soon — these forest dwellers may become creatures of myth themselves.

Wiegers uses sunbeams as a visual metaphor to deliver this message. Glowing, shifting beams angle through the tree canopy, bathing the creatures to the left of the painting but stopping short of the unicorn at the right. The creatures in sunlight still have a chance at recovery through habitat restoration and repopulation, but the light, Wiegers suggests, is fading.

On its surface, "Bubblegum Pop" looks like frothy fun. But the exhibit questions and challenges our cultural views in an unsettling, testing time. Even as pandemic protocols lift, we reenter a world that remains full of uncertainty and anxiety — and that continues to pursue a lifestyle with costly environmental, economic and social repercussions. This exhibit invites us to look beneath the veneer and to reevaluate.

"Bubblegum Pop" is on view through October 9 at BCA Center in Burlington. Exhibit reception is Friday, July 16, 5-7 p.m.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Seeking Utopia | Art review: "Bubblegum Pop," BCA Center"

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  • BCA Center