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A&E: At Herron Gallery, you win some with Wirsum

February 4, 2008

Usually, the only souvenir you can take home from a gallery exhibition is an artists' catalogue.

Visitors to "Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works(some)" at the Herron Galleries can also buy Karl Wirsum ball-and-paddle toys.

Get the message? This show is supposed to be fun, folks. And it is-without diminishing the fact that it celebrates the work of an important artist-in some ways the Midwest's answer to Andy Warhol.

Like Warhol, Chicago's Karl Wirsum makes significant use of flat, bright colors with barely a brushstroke to be found. And the influence of comic books and other elements of pop culture are obvious (Remember the old tin toys you see in antique stores? Clearly this guy has as well). But Wirsum-as shown here in great depth-is his own man, whether working in paintings, puppets or eye-popping 3-D computer-enhanced somethingorothers.

Wirsum earned a name for himself in the 1960s, when he participated in the "Hairy Who" exhibition in Hyde Park. From there, his works became part of major collections throughout the country. The works in the Herron show span decades and are not presented chronologically. Instead, the exhibition is loose in its associations, with elements of one piece often picked up in the next.

In Wirsum's world, Scotch-tape packaging becomes eyewear, genies pop out of wine bottles, robots frequent parking lots, and ice skates are just as easily used by hands as by feet. Gesture is as-if not more-important than facial expression (which are usually rendered with an Aztec-like flatness). The titles of the work are as playful as the pieces themselves, witness "Greedy Group Grape Grub," and "Koranda Approaching the Veranda."

And two infant paintings, "Stork Reality" and "Big Baby" are scary enough to make the randiest Herron student sign a vow of abstinence.

Landing the exhibit is a major score for Herron-and for those willing to brave the nightmare IUPUI parking to see the exhibition.

Just try not to play with the paddle-ball toy until you leave the gallery.

Chasing my 6-year-old around the "Curious George: Let's Get Curious!" exhibition at the Children's Museum got me curious about the iconic monkey. A few interesting items emerged from later homework-including the possibility that he isn't even a monkey:

Despite the deluge of Curious George books you may find at your local bookstore (or local garage sale), only the first seven books were written and illustrated by the original team of Margret & H.A. Rey. The rest were either based on the video series or created by others in the style of the Reys.

The Reys fled Paris during WW II-on bicycles-hours before the city fell to the Nazis. With them: The manuscript for the original "Curious George" book.

There is some controversy about whether or not the Man in the Yellow Hat kidnapped George or not. In the original book, George does seem to be taken against his will (of course, that was cleaned up in the recent animated movie).

In England, a wimpy publisher who feared insulting King George VI renamed the character Zozo.

Oh, about the monkey thing-Curious George has no tail. If he were a monkey, it's been argued, he'd have one. Of course, when the books were written, chimps were usually lumped in with monkeys instead of apes so one hopes that even simian purists can forgive.

Like most parents escorting their charges to the show, I didn't pay much attention to the reading area of the Curious George exhibit. But, in hindsight, I'm glad it was there. While it may not see as much use as the crazy window washing contraption or the mini-miniature golf course, it does offer a reminder that a good Children's Museum exhibit is more than a glorified playground built around a television series/movie character.

Now I've got to dig out those original books. Just out of curiosity.
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