Whiting Tennis’ love for old and neglected things showcased in art at the Tang

Whiting Tennis, a Seattle artist, sculptor and painter, likes to animate the inanimate, especially b

When we were young, monsters camped under the bed and demons lurked in the dark.

As we grow up, those frightening figures vanish. But fear of the unknown, of evil beings who could hurt us, is always with us, isn’t it?

So it is with a 7-foot-tall sculpture inhabiting a grassy patch outside the front doors of the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery.

Made of plywood that the artist covered with hot, oozing black tar, it looks like a spooky abandoned shed with a locked door.

It’s called “Boogeyman,” and when we see that sinister title, our imaginations take flight.

‘Opener 22: Whiting Tennis’

WHERE: Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs

WHEN: Through Dec. 30. Museum open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; Noon to 9 p.m. on Thursday.

HOW MUCH: Free, $5 donation suggested

MORE INFO: www.skidmore.edu/tang

Whiting Tennis, a Seattle artist, sculptor and painter, likes to animate the inanimate, especially buildings and structures. He uses materials like wood, cardboard, plaster and concrete, and his processes include drawing, painting, printmaking, collage and sculpture.

While the artist, who was born in 1959, is well known in the Northwest and has exhibited in major museums there, the current Tang show is his first solo museum show. “Opener 22: Whiting Tennis,” an exhibit of recent works, was organized by Tang curator Ian Berry in collaboration with the artist. In the Northeast, Tennis’ works have appeared in a solo show at Manhattan’s Derek Eller Gallery and a group show at Connecticut’s Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

Playful but serious

On the Tang’s second-floor gallery, one of the first Tennis pieces you see is the painting “Wolf,” in which an image of a wooden structure is subtly imbued with the soul of a wild animal.

“You can see the ears,” said Megan Hyde, a curatorial assistant who led a recent public tour of the exhibit. “The thing I really enjoy about his work is that it’s playful but serious, too.”

Another painting, “Mastodon” (2010), depicts a blue structure that looks like a treehouse built by unknown hands.

“Triclops,” a 9 1⁄2-foot-tall, podlike form made of salvaged wood, could be a shelter for a space alien or maybe the alien itself.

The shapes in Tennis’ sculptures and drawings of structures are figural and very vertical, not unlike Tennis himself, who is about 6-foot-8.

“A lot of this work comes from walking around his neighborhood and seeing structures. He has a love and admiration for the old and neglected,” explained Hyde.

According to Tennis, it began when he was walking along a New York City street and spied a tin can that had been tossed away and trodden upon.

Tennis, who was feeling lonely and abandoned at the time, somehow felt a bond with the tin can. “Empathy for the inert,” he calls it.

At first glance, one might see only geometric shapes (Tennis loves Cubism) and muted colors, but there is a beguiling undercurrent of emotions in this exhibit, and visitors are advised to spend some extra time to appreciate it.

Tennis likes to mimic the surfaces of worn objects that capture his attention, often making woodblock carvings of textures, printing them and then applying those prints onto a canvas in a nearly seamless collage.

“Blue Tarp” is a trompe-l’oeil, a painting that replicates a battered and splattered 12-by-8 foot household tarp, complete with metal grommets.

Tennis used burlap to create the texture in this piece, which is rich with references to the unknown human who left their accidental marks on it.

Tennis’ works begin with drawings or doodles that may become finished works themselves.

On one wall, 36 of these small drawings and paintings are arranged salon style as a “visual label” that shows the artist’s process.

Desire to collect

In many of the images, similar vertical or figural shapes appear over and over.

I couldn’t help but think of Richard Dreyfuss’ character in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the guy who’s obsessed with making mountainlike forms after a run-in with space aliens.

The wall sculpture “Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda” was a favorite on the public tour, probably because it reflects the human desire to collect things and display them.

More than 100 objects made by Tennis, about 4- to 6-inches tall, are lined up on shelves. Some are familiar or found objects — the nozzle of a garden hose, a miniature staircase, a toy refrigerator — but others, like the “Boogeyman” or “Triclops,” look like tiny cabinets or closets that could be inhabited by strange creatures.

In the far end of the gallery, there are two large paintings that Tennis actually finished on site, as he worked for nearly a month at the Tang before the exhibit opened on Sept. 3.

“Façade” is ghostly and minimalist, inspired by an old brick and wood building in his neighborhood. Made of plywood covered with layers of white paint, it looks like a bas relief, a two-dimensional rendering of the textures and details of the building.

Range of adjectives

Besides Whiting Tennis, the other reason to go to the Tang is the much-anticipated Kiki Smith show, the first comprehensive survey of her work in photography. “I Myself Have Seen It” is a wild, dense menagerie of 100 large-scale photographs plus 5,000 snapshots about death, animals, mythology, folk tales and her famed feminist body art.

“Beautiful,” “gruesome” and “disturbing” are just a few of the comments scribbled in the Tang visitors’ book.

Categories: Life and Arts

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