Strangely Sentimental

Thunder-Sky’s Small Potatoes considers knick-knacks as art

Mar 6, 2012 at 2:14 pm


mall Potatoes, a strangely sentimental exhibit at Thunder-Sky Inc., is like a heapin’ helping of Grandma’s comfort food. It’s unapologetically lumpy, undeniably homemade and served without fancy presentation but with a whole lot of love.  

Even those with refined palates can appreciate the dinner-table discussion if not the actual buffet of “self-made (and repurposed) knick-knacks, tchotchkes and other curiosities.” This show isn’t so much about art collections as it is about the art of collecting, sometimes to the point of hoarding. Why is one person’s trash another’s treasure? When does a thrifty recycler need a reality check? At what point does hanging on to childhood mementoes go from cute to creepy?  

The reality show Hoarders, one of the inspirations for Small Potatoes, has taught us that an obsessive-compulsive pack rat might start out with a seemingly harmless habit. Similarly, one wall of the exhibit happens to be more innocent than the opposite side, notes gallery co-founder Bill Ross. 

Nearly all the art in the show is placed on or low to the floor — perfect for evoking a child’s point of view and creating an Alice in Wonderland aesthetic. Lighthearted paperboard robots and dolls by Katherine Ziff of Athens, Ohio, line shelves fashioned out of old lumber, concrete blocks and paint cans. More robots sit atop metal TV trays — black floral ones like Grandma’s, of course. 

It’s fitting that Ziff found her inspiration in the art of second-graders she met as a school counselor. Food boxes, egg cartons and toilet paper rolls are minimally transformed into whimsical figures with button eyes and coifs made out of newspaper fans. Who’s to say they’re less special than a cabinet of vintage Barbies or porcelain dolls?

Matthew Waldeck’s colorful, plush action figures look like characters out of Saturday morning Schoolhouse Rock! lessons. Waldeck (of Cincinnati) pairs smiling and frowning figures, re-creating the childhood world where inanimate objects become friends and enemies. An eraser, with its soothing pink color and soft corners, is good and kind. Mr. Scissors, though, is mean and hurtful. These bright, charming sculptures make you want to be a kid again and relive the excitement over getting your first set of school supplies or Superman toy.  

Robert McFate of Tennessee has contributed approximately 30 wallet-size portraits of women and girls (out of nearly 250). Though small and on repurposed paperboard, the paintings are detailed enough to look like the senior photographs we so eagerly acquired in high school. Years later, most of us still have our classmates’ photos … somewhere. Maybe they are in a cardboard box, like one of those cleverly stashed under the makeshift shelves as part of the exhibit.

This wall of innocence also includes a Hip Hop update of Mr. Potato Head by local artists Ervin and Rebecca Henderson. As grown-ups, we can be quick to dismiss as “small potatoes” all of the plastic toys, Happy Meal prizes and other “must-have” trinkets that fascinated us once upon a time. Thunder-Sky Inc. reminds us “don’t be a tater hater” when considering these fun clay figures and little paintings.

But what happens when someone indulges in too many helpings of “small potatoes?”

In addition to Hoarders, Ross and gallery co-founder Keith Banner were influenced by Sanford and Son, filmmaker John Waters, thrift stores, “a grandpa’s garage,” recently departed artist Mike Kelley, landfills and the inside of Raymond Thunder-Sky’s toolboxes. That’s not all bad.

Thunder-Sky, the gallery’s namesake, was the “construction clown” artist seen downtown for years before he died in 2004. In his toolboxes, this man-child carried his drawings of demolition sites and objects he picked up on his walks — a $3 “Luckey Buck” with a clown on it, an open pack of reflectors, an empty Tic Tac box.  

Banner views Small Potatoes as the opposite of Infrastructure, the stripped-down exhibit that immediately preceded this show. Infrastructure’s vibe was like a boutique’s, Banner says. He half-seriously compares this exhibit to a Wal-Mart. Or “the apocalypse at a Cracker Barrel,” Ross suggests.  

An installation featuring the fiber sculptures of a Lexington artist known as Mary Vista serves as a transition between innocence and insanity. What appear to be mummified people or animals lie on the floor behind a fence. Praying over the scene is a ceramic angel, one of several thrift-store finds that Banner placed throughout the exhibit. Behind them, a gold tablecloth “sun” is rising or setting — you decide. Is it time to say goodbye to stuffed animals from childhood? Are these figures a pair of hoarders ready to rise up and cut the ties that bind? I’m afraid that whatever these figures are, they are gone for good, literally too wrapped up in “stuff.”

Themes of passages and death play out along the adjacent wall. A framed series of 3-by-5-inch notes from Dale Jackson, a Thunder-Sky artist-in-residence, records consumer and pop icons that we’ve discarded or lost: Michael Jackson (speaking of hoarders), TWA, Sister Sledge, Eastern Airlines, K-tel and Oldsmobile. Then there are TV shows that should be dead but, due to syndication, aren’t, such as According to Jim and That ’70s Show.

Gena Grunenberg’s skeletal drawings and Tim Burtonesque bobbleheads create a macabre mood, along with paintings of bloody body parts by Emily Brandehoff. The local women’s art sits atop cheery little tables, but conditions in this household setting are grim. Finally, we come to a funeral. Visionaries & Voices artist Brian Dooley, working with soft sculpture, has depicted himself in a burial shroud. An undertaker stands over him. 

Small Potatoes undoubtedly will get you thinking about your own potential for going overboard with stuff. This exhibit celebrates knick-knacks, but it wants you to wake up and smell the cat litter before it’s too late. Smack in the middle of the gallery is a cat box that’s been yarn-bombed with crocheted poop from New Jersey artist Cathy Dailey. 

Even a “crazy cat lady” will laugh … I hope.

To put things in Grandma’s terms: Potatoes are fine, but you need to have something else, too.


continues through April 14 at Thunder-Sky Inc. in Northside.