The Coolest Fort I’ve Ever Been In

10/09/2013 4:00 AM |

eila Gueramian, JFeel, via allegra laviola

My introduction to Jeila Gueramian’s Let’s Go Further at Allegra LaViola (through October 12) was at a dinner inside the gallery. People were generally excited about the show, and most of us ended up having a little too much to drink—the sort of thing grown-ups do for fun, but done at an exhibition designed for the kid in you; it’s all latch-hook rugs, display boxes with LEDs, and stuffed animal wall hangings. There’s even a play-fort covered in lights.

As it happens, the title of the first work you see, “Not Flawless, but Perfect,” also sums up my assessment of the show. In this exhibition, wonkiness is a joy. The piece itself, an enlarged plush brown microbe with a lighted miniature landscape in its center, introduces the viewer to the idea of the micro and the macro. Stitched on the side of a small barn in the landscape are the words “not flawless.” Imperfection is part of this work’s charm—the artist’s hand is clearly present—but you sense that she wants a partner. The twig-like tentacles of the microbes can be moved by visitors or collectors into different positions. The sculpture even wraps around and disguises its plugs.

That kind of inventiveness proves useful in tackling the show’s dominant theme: play. What defines play, though, may be mutable, as the front hall of the gallery resembles a treasure chest. A series of wide, skinny pedestals in the gallery’s front hall showcase four square boxes with LED trim. Inside one is a tiger hanging from a blossoming tree; in another, a lion with gold antlers is backed by pink fern patterning. Both seem like the kind of thing you might turn on before tucking your kid into bed.

The details are important because you know they’re telling a story, even if you’re not quite sure what it is. That’s why the hanging latch-hook rugs nearby seem weak by comparison. In one, an elephant wraps its tusks around the word “feel”; in another, a panda has “listen” emblazoned on its forehead. Both have LED lights for eyes. They’re pretty funny, but it’s hard to shake the impression that the iconography and lights could just as easily end up on a hipster T-shirt. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but because I get the sense that Gueramian doesn’t share that consumer-group’s interest in irony, some may find it confusing.  
The problem with these works in particular (beyond the obvious issue of working with objects charged with nostalgia) may lie in the text, which often seems imposed upon the animal instead of anthropomorphizing it in some way. The stuffed animals nearby more easily draw associations with human gestures and forms—and are better for it. A set of stuffed antlers hanging near the back of the gallery looks like a pair of arms ready to hug a viewer. It’s adorable. You want to hug it back. A colorful lobster nearby has enough ornamentation around an orifice on its back that it resembles an aroused vagina. It’s hilarious. You want to touch it.

In each case, it’s the animal’s relationship to the viewer’s body that makes the work more appealing—like you’re not alone. That’s perhaps nowhere more important than in the back gallery, which houses a fort within a garden of crocheted flowers, and a blue pool constructed out of lights. Inside, there are plenty of cushions to sit on, which visitors can do while watching a custom animation of a cartoon alien ship. It’s meant to be used by groups.

It’s undoubtedly the coolest fort I’ve ever been in, and a lot of that has to do with the sheer craziness of the stuff she’s surrounded it with. None of these objects exhibit machine-crafted precision, and they’re not beautiful in any traditional sense of the word. That’s what makes them perfect.