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LOU'S VIEWS: Rickey's sculptures, Phoenix's 'Zoomerville' advance Indy's art reputation

May 18, 2009

This week, art in the wind and an original musical.

Seeing still images of George Rickey's stainless steel work, shining like flamboyant cousins of the "2001: A Space Odyssey" monolith, you might easily write them off as cold. Maybe even redundant and uninteresting.

It's a given that photos don't do justice to most outstanding works of art. Rickey's sculptures, when reduced to a single, captured image, are diminished even more than most. His large-scale work thrives on contact. It's shifting pieces, coerced by the wind into unexpected patterns struggling toward harmony, yield more with every view, with every extra minute spent with them, with every small gust of air.

"George Rickey: An Evolution," the latest major Public Art Indianapolis exhibition, represents a number of firsts. It's the first of the series to feature a widely accepted master of his form (Rickey's work is in museums around the world, including the Getty, the Guggenheim, Tokyo's Hara, the National Gallery of Art, and the Tate Gallery). It's the first to celebrate the work of a deceased artist. And it's also the first to feature an artist with a strong Indiana connection. Rickey was born in South Bend and taught at Indiana University.

Ten of Rickey's pieces have been placed downtown, and my few quibbles have to do with presentation rather than content. While the most accomplished and evocative of the work, 1989's "Breaking Column II," is given room to breathe, other pieces seem to have been forced uncomfortably into the downtown landscape, with trees and other obstacles obscuring the experience rather than enhancing it. "Two Planes Vertical Horizontal IV" is a notable victim, hidden as it is behind the arch at City Market. So is "Four L's Excentric II," which seems to have had meaning forced on it by placing it in front of Christ Church Cathedral. Yes, if the wind's whims dictate it, the pieces could come together to form a cross, but it seems simplistic. (Although, I'm told, the piece was Rickey's response to the Pope's visit to Scotland, so read into the fragmentation what you will).

Because the work isn't seen in sequence, it's difficult to see the "evolution" that the show's title is driving us toward. And ideally, the related show, the Indianapolis Art Center's "A Life in Art: Works by George Rickey," would have opened simultaneously with the unveiling of the downtown work. As it stands, we have to wait until the end of June for that tie-in.

Still, it's an outstanding show. I love having the Edward Scissorhands-like "Six Lines in a T II" just outside my office window. A drive-by made "Two Planes Vertical Horizontal IV" seem like glorified solar panels, but seeing them up close—being under and around them—sent my mind reeling to thoughts of balance and perspective.

The more time spent with the works—whether all at once or throughout the summer (the show closes Sept. 7)—should only enhance the experience. I'll be checking in with them alone, with my kids, and with visitors over the next few months.

"The Zippers of Zoomerville or Two-Hundred Laps and a Lass" starts with laughs. It ends with laughs. And it's packed with punch lines in between, many of them set to music. It's shameless in its willingness to do almost anything for a laugh—I say "almost" because, while you are unlikely to hear as many scrotal jokes anywhere else, the show feels remarkably innocent. It isn't out to offend. Just to put a crazy smile on your face. Which it does.

Using the Indy 500 and its surrounding culture as a launch pad, "Zoomerville" wisely never gets too precious or insidery. It hits the wall occasionally and, like the race itself, there are some uninspiring stretches. And it doesn't really have much to say about the race or anything else. But those barely put a dent in my admiration, enthusiasm and, OK, maybe even awe about what's being pulled off at the Phoenix Theatre.

Comedies don't win Oscars. They rarely win Tonys. They don't get a whole lot of respect in part because, like tear-jerkers, they appeal to the primal. At the same time, though, they play an intellectual game. Good comedies have smarts. And being so dependent on audience reaction, they are really easy to screw up.

"Zoomerville" doesn't. And considering that it's a true, home-grown original, its achievement is even more remarkable.

Inspired by Gilbert & Sullivan, "Zoomerville" is imprinted with influences from Steven Sondheim to Andy Prieboy (whose club musical, "White Trash Wins Lotto," is the closest thing I've seen to it in style and spirit). But I don't want to give too much credit to its antecedents at the expense of praise for the relentless creativity of playwright/ co-lyricist Jack O'Hara, aided and abetted by composer Tim Brickley (who plays piano on stage throughout). The densely (and hilariously) packed lyrics and jaunty score are both stronger than any reasonable theatergoer would expect. And Phebe Taylor and Scot Greenwell stand out in the plum parts of pageant queen Happenstance Throttlehopper and rookie racer John Hoosier Lordyboy Jr.

"Zoomerville" offers two hours of joyful silliness—OK, maybe an hour and a half, with some easily trimmable filler—that, I believe, could break out of this market and reach a wider audience. Do I smell a future "Urinetown"?

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