The massive red lawn dart in front of the Arlington Arts Center is merely the most conspicuous of several oversize toys seemingly abandoned by a pack of gargantuan children. Look up and you’ll see a huge blue Frisbee stuck atop the building’s portico, as well as an immense yellow kite snagged in the tree at the corner of the lot.
The giant playthings, made by Cory Oberndorfer, announce the theme of the center’s current exhibition, “Play: Tinker, Tech, & Toy.” In a way, so do the outsize objects’ primary colors. This 13-artist romp is not a place for subtly modulated hues or artsy shades of gray.
There’s plenty in “Play” that should appeal to children, but that doesn’t mean the show’s participants are simply expressing their inner tyke. Some of the work is more art school than grade school, and even a few kid-friendly items contain art-history references.
John James Anderson’s coloring-book project, for example, offers colored pencils and outline drawings of famous artworks, from prehistoric cave paintings and Japanese woodblock prints to 1960s Pop. One of the featured artists is Claes Oldenburg, who began making monumental replicas of everyday objects a half- century before Oberndorfer.
Using video, photos and manufactured objects, Annette Isham and Zac Willis document their competitive spear throwing, tomahawk hurling and football kicking. This is play as solemn grown-up gamesmanship, including straight-to-the-camera remarks in which the adversaries echo the blustering banalities of professional athletes in postgame interviews.
Another team, Jason Corace and Sam Sheffield, also toys with the idea of games. Their “Mr. Yums Inc.” is a video game in which a beleaguered worker tries to run a factory all by himself. Behind the screen’s simulated 3-D workplace is an apparatus — part Rube Goldberg device, part disemboweled pinball machine. Players can interact via a joystick or by sending silver marbles down various paths.
Whether engaging with the video screen or the mechanism, though, it seems the effort will ultimately prove futile. That’s another thing Corace and Sheffield’s game shares with the ones played by Isham and Willis, whose artists’ statement notes their interest in “failure.”
Less slickly than either of those duos, Marty Weishaar built a little world that, he notes, is roughly the size of his own studio. Erected on a spindly wooden framework, the structure is covered in metal foil, colorful tape and globs of glue. This piece also is interactive, with a model train layout and switches that turn on small fans. “You are welcome to come in,” Weishaar writes, yet it seems a very personal space.
Catherine O’Connell also assembled found objects, but on a smaller scale. Her series of tiny constructions, which repurpose popsicle sticks, wine corks and other detritus, have a childlike quality. But O’Connell’s play is not quite random, but shaped by conceptualism. Each piece is a titled “A story about . . .” something, and the artist asked others to choose which materials she would use each time.
Scott Pennington’s “Carnival Interior” is much more controlled. Decorated in bright preschool hues, this elaborate funhouse features large rotating discs on three walls, flanking a pond full of yellow wooden ducks that reel around a fountain. But do the motors that run the fun really need to grind so loudly? They make the play sound like work.
Three artists — Randall Lear, Steven Jones and Carolina Mayorga — share a gallery. Lear’s “A Gaggle of Painted Doohickeys” affixes a variety of small objects to the wall, with each set placed inside the borders of a colorfully painted cloud. On the floor, Mayorga has created a roundabout trail of red dashes leading across the room and commenting on, she writes, “issues of migration.”
Like Oberndorfer, Jones likes to blow things up. But his enlargements are of such edibles as a corncob and cuts of meat. Comically yet disturbingly, the artist put two of the latter on the sort of motorized pedestals that usually support mechanical horsie rides. For 50 cents, a coin box offers, a kid can enjoy a gallop on a butchered chicken.
Of all the contributors, only Becca Kallem is identified as a children’s art teacher. Perhaps that’s why she contributed the least kid-oriented work.
Kallem’s paintings and sculptures do show the influence of instructing grade-schoolers, as they include vivid colors and basic shapes and patterns. But these are contrasted by softer gestures, more subdued hues and a painterly style. Her largest painting, a rock landscape punctuated by lines and circles, is even in shades of gray. It would be handsome in any setting, but it’s particularly striking in this aesthetic toyland.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Arlington Arts Center,
3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-248-6800. www.arlingtonartscenter.org.
Dates: Through Oct. 11.