A floor-to-ceiling installation converting ADA's front gallery space into a life-size game-board extravaganza, "SWEETNESS," engulfs viewers with a frothy assemblage of color, pattern and form influenced by cartoons, early childhood toys and the Hasbro game Candy Land. Stacks of lively patterned boxes, oversized plastic flowers and meandering paths of paint and candy create a landscape where wooden figures carved and painted as 3-D cartoons reside.
Although the art code may support any subject matter if it's handled with sarcasm and comic-book styling, "SWEETNESS" has little to do with either type of posturing. The brothers claim to be pushing the idea of pure sweetness to its limits, and they do so with all earnestness. Tapping into the core of childhood fantasy as though it were still quite fresh and active in their own dreamscapes, they skip along the border between innocence and commercial influence with ease. Their installation is as unadulterated an expression of youthful cravings as one could imagine.
If the brothers' formal art training isn't apparent in the conception of "SWEETNESS" (Matt is a candidate for a master's degree in fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth University; Josh graduated from Louisiana State University), that training is evident is the execution.
Matt's fluency with three-dimensional construction is evident in each wood object, from humanlike and animal figures to the carefully crafted motorized Ferris wheel and toy train cars. Josh's meticulous painting of patterns and features such as anxious smiles filled with fierce teeth provide a pinch of absurdity that one might argue is a necessary ingredient. Through its styling, which mixes hip graphic touches with conventions borrowed from toy makers and book illustrators, and its thoughtful composition and staging, "SWEETNESS" is bound to throw its audience into a sugar-induced hallucination.
During the '80s, artist Jeff Koons tried to bridge the gap between art and life by placing vulgar dime-store objects in gallery settings. Audiences were forced to view head-on dull, vapid products of presumably a dim-witted culture. The Spahr brothers' installation, confrontational in its own manner, might offer similar criticism of the kind of influence Western culture plays on childhood hopes and dreams. But, in the end, what it does best is activate the best of childhood memories.
The Spahrs' ingenious visual formula for this installation required not only that they abandon the art code, but also that they push their roles as artists. "SWEETNESS" is as much a product of graphic, interior and industrial design as it is of fine art. Their seamless effort makes the experience all the sweeter. S
"SWEETNESS" is on view at ADA Gallery, 228 W. Broad St., through September. Call 644-0100 for more information.