Wednesday, April 21, 2010

9:46 p.m.

Potions of Our Own Perception
It's Elementary My Dear Watson, an exhibition by Ian Shelly
Exciting photos to come!

"Holy Shit," exclaimed a surprised, twenty-something as she entered the George Caleb Bingham Gallery. "Now this is a grad show."

Despite her uninhibited use of an expletive, the woman's reaction is quite appropriate for ceramicist Ian Shelly's Masters Thesis exhibition. It's Elementary My Dear Watson is a successful and complex study on where, among other things, childlike naiveté and scientific rationalism converge. Excited playground shrieks rub together with scientific discovery in an atomic particle party of Eureka! moments.

Shelly has transformed the gallery into a space full of sculptural vignettes that are tied together not only by subject matter, but also by a distinctive language of color, geometrics and mechanics. The cone is used throughout his sculptures, and Shelly constantly challenges its meaning as a "beneficial or detrimental" symbol. Clay, cone-shaped, pseudo-humans are the protagonists of each work, peering collectively through scientific lenses, or wobbling alone at a miniature, handmade telescope. Large canvases adorn either end of the gallery, with more cone-beings hanging from miniature, metal swing stages, perhaps serving as window washers or painters. Recalling past science lessons, they seem to paint or rinse away sketches of abstract atoms.

In another imagined world, a canvas with the faintest hint of Mondrian is violated by multicolored cone-shaped bullets that penetrate and pop out like growths, suggesting the juxtaposition of humanity and weaponry. Painted in slightly dirty yellows, oranges, reds and blues, crumpled traffic cones serve as drunken guides through many of Shelly's other works.

Situated in the center of the gallery and serving as the exhibition's climax, a post-apocalyptic sand castle crumbles before us — either washed away by a natural source or our own doing. And still, there is a naiveté and whimsy to it all. Shelly is a skilled illusionist, as his nearly real fortress evokes our own childhood pipe-dreams and playthings. Maybe it is simply a little boy's imagined playhouse. With his range of techniques, it is quite possible to forget that Shelly's primary medium is clay, a natural substance that is always somewhere under our feet. Here, miniature wooden tanks infiltrate the barriers of trompe-l'œil clay that imitates wood or rusty, aged metal.

The exhibition inspires valuable discourse on the perception of our own activities. At what point does a plaything represent a perpetrator? As if left out from their toy-box, there are disheveled toys off in a corner — a reinvention of Risk where there are no continents to conquer, only soldiers to corner and destroy. Across the room, five jets hang statically between the floor and ceiling. Four resemble military aircraft. One, however, looks like a tiny, model plane invented by the Wright brothers. By questioning our memory of childhood, perception of objects and thoughts on our own history, Shelly taunts us to play "Which of these things is not like the other?"

Down to every detail, It's Elementary My Dear Watson is an exquisite show that examines and challenges our notions of humanity's flippancy and fragility against undisputed scientific evidence. Although there are only a few moments when the exhibition can seem too literal, the artist's vision and execution of his show is both complex and complete, with plenty of opportunities for discovery along the way.

It's Elementary My Dear Watson exhibits April 19th-29th at the George Caleb Bingham Gallery, with an opening reception on April 23rd and a lecture on April 28th.

For more information, visit or the Bingham Gallery's website.

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