Invitation to play: Art as an interactive experimentation in ‘LOOPLAB’

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Viewers get to interact with the art in “LOOPLAB” at McGuffey through February 28. Photo: Courtesy of the artist Viewers get to interact with the art in “LOOPLAB” at McGuffey through February 28. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Playing with the art in a gallery is not always the viewer’s first instinct. “I always worry that video [art] is intimidating, but then you put on a lab coat and it changes things,” says multimedia artist Fenella Belle. In an exhibition this month with photographer Stacey Evans, Belle’s lab coat is both symbolically and physically present. It points to the creative experimentation that the two artists seek to inculcate in gallerygoers, but it’s also an interactive element in one of the works. Titled “LOOPLAB,” the full exhibition includes video and fabric installations as well as small cyanotype prints and an interactive collage at the McGuffey Art Center.

Belle and Evans originally met through their day jobs as art instructors at Piedmont Virginia Community College and both became McGuffey members approximately two years ago. While teaching a summer camp together, “We noticed that we have some similar styles in terms of teaching, approach and trying to get people to be playful and not intimidated by art,” says Belle. Based on this, the idea for this exhibition was formalized in the summer of 2015, motivated in part by the McGuffey Art Center’s annual call for member exhibitions.

Since then, the two artists have shared many hours in each other’s studios, meeting once a week to swap ideas and play with various materials. The collaboration has largely focused on interaction and experimentation from day one. “We just took out a piece of paper and we really didn’t have any plans. It was just, ‘Let’s throw some stuff on here and see what happens,’” recalls Belle.

Though both artists share a tactical approach, their aesthetics diverge drastically. Belle is bright colors and organic shapes; Evans is more subdued, with a tendency toward the technological. “Fenella’s really good with a hammer and I’m really good with a computer,” says Evans. Where Belle might use a flower or the looping silhouette of a leafy vine to accent a piece, Evans is more likely to incorporate an outdated credit card machine or flip phone. “In our practices, we each have discarded materials that are hard to throw into the trash can,” says Evans. “So, we have a lot of material that we want to recycle and reuse, transforming that into something new.”

The McGuffey exhibition also includes the display of two prior individual works that are featured in “LOOPLAB.” The first was created for the 2015 PVCC faculty show and featured magnetic shapes on steel wall panels. “[It’s] the most free-form since it gets completed by the viewer,” says Belle. Indeed, it invites the viewer to touch and play, rearranging the shapes and colors while also acknowledging the impermanence of any one configuration.

The second display from their partnership took the form of an interactive video during PVCC’s annual Let There Be Light event. Belle and Evans engaged viewers as co-experimenters. Clothed in lab coats, they encouraged visitors to project their shadows onto the video in an improvisational performance.

While both of these previous works are engaging, the highlight of this exhibition is a new series of oversized cyanotypes. Making use of this process to create silhouette prints on light-sensitive surfaces, Belle and Evans created an immersive and playful installation that plays off their skills. “I’m really committed to interactive stuff,” Belle says. “I like to make spaces that people can walk into. I know how to do big fabric, and [Stacey] knows how to do cyanotypes.”

Collecting found materials from other projects, the two artists assembled boxes of objects to use as the negative space in the cyanotype exposures. Belle and Evans coated 7′ silk panels with photosensitive chemicals and allowed them to dry before being stored in light-blocking black garbage bags to await the perfect, sunny day.

“We got the coldest day of January, but the sun was out,” says Evans. They constructed a temporary tent on McGuffey’s front lawn, allowing space for one fabric panel in its shade, then composed each panel, placing objects directly on the fabric to create patterns and shapes. When Belle and Evans were happy with the arrangement, they pulled back the tent to expose the large sheet of photosensitive fabric to the sun. The exposure time for each panel was 15 minutes, after which they would take it inside to rinse and then start the process again on the next panel. Once rinsed, the images on the fabric are permanent. Seven of these printed panels hang from the gallery ceiling and the result is a gauzy maze, submerging viewers in the blue waves of floating fabric punctuated by lighter swirls and blocks that are abstract and free-form.

As with the other two pieces, the cyanotypes are, in a sense, completed by the viewer. Until someone interacts with the magnets, the video or the immersive space created by the cyanotypes, the pieces themselves are incomplete. The act of play is the final component of the collaboration, and one in which we all are invited to take part.

What are your favorite artistic collaborations?

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