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Exhibition Essay
June 23, 2022

Nursery Rhymes for Questionable Times

Author
A.P. Ferrell

Nursery rhymes appear, on their surface, silly, merry chants handed down from one generation to the next. Their appeal resides in their uncomplicated melodies, simplistic verses, and mundane subject matter: bridges, spiders, walls. Yet, beneath their veneer of light-hearted whimsy, nursery rhymes are often haunted by difficulty if not distress: the bridge collapses, the spider’s climb proves Sisyphean, Humpty Dumpty falls and remains irreparably damaged. Nursery Rhymes for Questionable Times (NR4QT) draws out this coexistence of play and plight, inviting us to explore how childlike imagination can offer a reprieve from “reality” and yet, at the same time, also reveal some of today’s most difficult truths.
The five artists featured in NR4QT inspire in us the joys of youthful naivety while also gently urging us to look just a bit deeper. From Stephanie Rogers’s intuitively uncharted paintings to E. Sherman Hayman’s meticulously detailed constructions of home(s), and including Tommy Mavra’s dinosaur dreamscapes, Matthew Courtney’s haptically dynamic beasts, and Phoebe Murer’s repurposing of the all-too-familiar, these artists capture senses of moments, fragments of memories, and glimpses of maturation. When viewed together, temporality emerges as a central theme across this work, though each artist grapples with time and its passage—the insights we gain and the insulation we give up as we evolve—in distinctive registers. This conceptually fantastical and aesthetically arresting work serves as a timely reminder that we might revel in past experiences of innocence while also refusing the alluring cover of ignorance at present.
Then
Material objects and cultural imagery help to spur personal and collective memories, enabling us to access what was and what has been. Working across a range of mediums, Phoebe Murer and E. Sherman Hayman direct our attention to how familiar forms contain and conjure the past. Hayman’s RE:PRODUCTION series plays with a formality of presentation that one might easily find in a museum of natural history. Each aspect of every portrait—from patterned frame to incorporated plaque—intricately details the history and the habits of the creature it captures, frozen in time. Similarly, Hayman’s work in HOME seizes an intensely sentimental concept and ossifies its affective valences in the form of sgraffito, balsa wood, and mixed media on museum board. The resulting array of cleanly detailed structures hold, hide, and also hint at traces of the messiness and memories that can accompany “home.”
While Murer incorporates images whose familiarity from our youth might invite us to feel “at home,” her paintings and screenprints simultaneously raise questions about how the past reverberates across time. The faces of Bert and Ernie, staples of U.S. public television programming for children, glower at us from a dimly lit psych ward and the confines of a straight jacket. Edging on the absurd, Murer’s renderings remain grounded by encouraging us to reflect on the child that once watched these characters—used those crayons, enjoyed that theme park ride—alongside with the person viewing this art at present.
Now
If what we know and what we’ve come to expect is in part rooted in our past, Matthew Courtney and Tommy Mavra ask us to suspend our disbelief and, for just this moment, be right here and now in an otherworldly and unforeseen present. Courtney’s sculptures offer the tactile possibilities of imagination, suturing figments of the mind and fractions of animals in ways unanticipated and perhaps even unsettling. Through the repeatedly imprecise and roughly hewn adherence of limbs to torsos—the hoof of a horse, the curved neck of a camel, the crown of a duck—these pieces carry the traces of juvenile-like exertion in conversation with the evident labor of their maker.
Mavra’s paintings take us from these experimental corporeal combinations to scenic city- and table-scapes that similarly center incongruous and surprising pairings. His work reaches back and brings the prehistoric into the present to make the all-too-familiar strange: velociraptors move about Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood and a triceratops lumbers through Budapest’s 8th District undaunted. Dinosaurs also appear amid the quotidian of a set dining table, with their stature and the texture of their portrayal indistinguishable from cutlery, empty wine glasses, and a fleshy roast. Throughout his paintings, Mavra foregrounds nature alongside the evident imprints of humanity, encouraging us to reflect on our expectations, question our everyday actions, and consider their enduring effects—on the environment and perhaps even on each other—as they extend well into the future.
Next
Navigating the now requires, in part, an eye towards what comes next. Considering the future—amid the breadth of pleasures and precarities that characterize the present—can be daunting. However, Stephanie Rogers’s paintings seem to collapse time entirely, moving us beyond the easy rhythms of recognition and pressures to “progress.” Bold brushes of purple, sweeps of translucent pink, and speckles of cadmium red inch us away from expectation and urge us to linger in the sensory. Her work requests that we follow what and how we’re feeling with a childlike freedom from the strictures of knowing too much or anticipating any one outcome. Rogers hopefully gestures toward what could be and what is yet to come, though she offers few restrictions on its shape. Here, finally, the dualities of play and plight surface through our potential to collaboratively imagine an emergent reality alongside the artist while also bearing the responsibility of the form that this future might take.
Though history may not repeat itself, it could very well rhyme. These artists inspire us to engage with the energy, the excitement, and the possibilities of play across time. Reflecting the Janus like qualities of nursery rhymes, the work in NR4QT warns us of the dark underbelly of nostalgia while harnessing creativity and invention to reflect, to be present, and to envision what might come next.

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