Finalist 3: Travis Childers

Fairfax-based artist Travis Childers, our third Real Art D.C. finalist, submitted a curious set of photographs documenting row upon row of Petri dishes. Something peculiar was going on and I wanted to know more.
Thursday, June 24, 2010; 2:24 PM

What a curious set of photographs Travis Childers uploaded to Real Art D.C. A series documenting row upon row of Petri dishes with blobs of pink gunk nesting inside, the pictures were clinical and not at all sexy. Something peculiar was going on.

Turns out those Petri dishes were part of an artwork called "Cultures," a kind of library of human faces that Childers has been working on for a few years. The artist pressed Silly Putty -- the pink stuff I was seeing in the dishes -- against newspaper pictures and pulled up all kinds of faces. Childers puts those visages in his dishes, he says, "to show how people are in their own worlds, how we interact with certain groups of people and not others."

Lifting images from newspapers is a favorite strategy of Childers's. In his Fairfax home's basement studio, which he shares with the family's charming pet rats, Childers has hung a series of finished and unfinished works approached in nearly the same manner: He presses masking tape against newspaper, allowing the tape to gather the impression (of clouds, of buildings, of human faces) and then places those pieces of tape, one against the next, on stretched canvas. The resulting artworks are decidedly not paintings; nevertheless, Childers trained as a painter and still adheres to its conventions, hence the stretched canvases. Later, he'll coat the finished work with clear acrylic medium to seal them (the same stuff painters use) to ensure it won't attract dust.

Childers's pictures -- most are rather large, three feet tall or bigger -- are something like the opposite of Impressionism. Up close, you see the details of the faces (or clouds, or buildings); each image is perhaps a few inches long and not even an inch high, and there are around 400 per picture. From afar, they lose their details and his artworks begin to look like abstract meditations on color.

Childers likens his strategy of tape impressions to how memory works -- hazy, misremembered and without chronological clarity.

Childers's ideas have their intrigues. But the tape-impression works lack an overarching organizational concept. One work, called "Conflict," assembles faces associated with newspaper stories about conflict, Childers says. Yet they're arranged randomly and without any sort of context. Similar issues crop up with the Petri dishes in "Cultures," which jumble disparate faces but the concept is too vague to really make a point.

Travis, why not add limits to the images, zoom in on an idea and tighten up?

Childers also crafts accumulative sculptures using everyday objects. He riddled several white button-down shirts with staples; they're like office-ready chain mail. Right now, the artist is working on a tree trunk made entirely of yellow pencils -- 2,000 so far, and the piece is just halfway done. It's both an aesthetic pleasure and a conceptual success. (The wood pencil rediscovers its roots!)

Another project brewing in Childers's studio stages mini battles between nature and the man-made. An old stapler is covered by a layer of moss (landscaping borrowed from a model train set); a pencil inserted into an old pencil sharpener sprouts "moss," too. In both cases, if you use the object -- staple something, sharpen the pencil -- you'll destroy the faux nature that's taken hold on its surfaces. I like this work's contradictions and the small scale of the objects. Let's hope Childers keeps at it.

-- Jessica Dawson

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