Works at Play: Billy Mayer’s Exhibit at Hope College’s The De Pree Gallery
by Margaret Foreman
I’m always questioning what impression an exhibit gives when I first walk through the doors. For the The De Pree’s current exhibit, Billy Mayer’s 440, one word came to mind: play. While the bold colors and shiny glazes conjure up images of toys, the word is fitting in more ways than one.
Play has multiple meanings and connotations. There are, of course, those associations with fun and games. But the word “play” also brings up musical instruments, radios, speakers, theatre and sports. The title of Professor Mayer’s Sabbatical Exhibit, 440, derives from the 440 hertz, the musical note that two radio stations play to help orchestras tune their instruments. Then, even broader connotations of play come to mind, such as a smirk playing on lips or double entendre.
Not all childlike or lighthearted. Like the word “play,” Mayer’s work is not all fun and games. Under the color and shine, viewers find messages about pop culture, history, politics, world events and criticisms.
The exhibit features cartoon characters but uses them to play with adult themes. Take, for example, a sculpture of Pinocchio standing on two speakers. The message, paired with Mayer’s statement, isn’t complicated. Simply titled, the piece is called “Speaker.” Mayer comments on the image guide about this work, “I was thinking about John Boehner and now I’m thinking about Paul Ryan.” At a glance the piece seems harmless, perhaps even silly, but offers a more cynical commentary of current politicians.
Boxing gloves also appear throughout Mayer’s work. In the “Ghost of the Galveston Giant,” Herend porcelain, a luxurious material once found in the wares of the Habsburg Dynasty, is connected with music and the sport of boxing. Three seemingly disconnected objects — porcelain, gloves, speaker — are pulled together under the theme of Jack Johnson, world champion of heavy weight boxing nicknamed the Galveston Giant. Mayer ties the speaker, which the gloves rest on to Miles Davis’s tribute to Johnson. The white of the porcelain and hints of the tribute make the gloves ghosts.
Perhaps the most elusive “play” at work is the play on words. When I was fortunate enough to find Mayer in the gallery on one of my visits, I learned many of his pieces start with a sense of childlike fascination or curiosity. “Here,” in particular, started with a childhood obsession with skulls. Dressing up like a skeleton on Halloween became a tradition that Mayer continued into adulthood. The small objects, each standardized to fit on the small skull, are literally “on the mind.” Mayer explains that the skull became a standardization for creating a variety of objects — a larger than life ant and smaller than natural elephant.
Viewers must enter the exhibit with a playful mindset, curiosity and a willingness to freely associate. Otherwise, they’ll be faced with a room full of seemingly disconnected, bizarre assortment of objects.