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“Aunt Emma’s Revenge” by Elizabeth Spotswood Spencer

Reimagining the Ball and Mallet

[View the virtual gallery here]

It wasn’t supposed to turn out quite like this. Out of Bounds: The Art of Croquet, co-curated by Jennifer-Navva Milliken, Artistic Director at the Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia, PA, and furniture maker Silas Kopf, from Northampton, was an opportunity for “artists to delve into the function, form, and historical mystique of croquet” per Milliken. However, no one had any idea that the world would provide so much inspiration beyond that. “We started developing the exhibition in January and the artists were invited in early March, just prior to the reality of the lockdown.” explained Victoria Allport, the Gallery and Marketing Manager for the Messler Gallery at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship.

“A Peculiar Woodworker’s Croquet Mallet & Ball” by Yuri Kobayashi

So what do you do when a global pandemic hits right as your exhibition is taking off? The same thing everyone else had to do: improvise the best you can and move it online. The first challenge was for the artists themselves. Some had to withdraw due to financial issues or lack of studio space. Others had to entirely reinvent their idea from scratch. One piece, from Ellie Richards, was lost in the mail. Art can thrive in troubled times though. As Milliken writes, the exhibition “shows what can and can’t be accomplished during a tumultuous and uncertain time, as artists suddenly found themselves cut off from access to work spaces and materials, or overwhelmed with the many roles they are shouldering now, whether working for the racial justice movement, volunteering for a food distribution center, or learning how to mentor and educate sculpture students from strictly digital platforms. The works in the exhibition, as well as the works that were conceived for it but never materialized, are comments on our time, through the language of the seemingly arcane game of croquet.”

“Flamingo” by Alf Sharp

The final exhibition is just as diverse as the artists that created it. “[The curators] aimed for a list reflective of the broader field in terms of age, gender, race, and other considerations of identity” explained Allport via email. The pieces themselves vary wildly – there is humor and whimsy, there is desire for a time before this pandemic, and there is social commentary. Interestingly, despite no requirement do to so, almost all of the artists submitted a croquet set that retained some level of function. The notable exception is “Racial Croquet” by artist Scott Grove. In his words: “I created this piece in response to the relentless racial injustice we see in America. I want to immortalize the recent death of George Floyd and reflect upon his legacy, literally in black and white. I hope the piece creates discomfort and fosters the frank discussions needed to acknowledge our history of black oppression; our current rules about the use of force and military-style policing; and how we can move forward toward a new definition of true equality. Black Lives Matter. I selected the materials and arrangement thoughtfully, using cherry wood (the moral of George Washington’s story acknowledging his wrongdoing); white milk paint (representing white privilege and milk, which is used to neutralize tear gas); the right-angle form (as in rightwing) that dominates and oppresses the black figure below it; and the price, $846 (signifying the eight minutes and 46 seconds that George Floyd gasped for breath before dying under the knee of Derek Chauvin). ”

“Racial Croquet” by Scott Grove

The final challenge for the Messler Gallery was to share the art with the world in a safe way. The decision was made to stage a virtual tour where people could enjoy the gallery from the safety of their home. The result and feedback have been positive enough that they hope to continue the practice after the pandemic ends.

Out of Bounds: The Art of Croquet runs at the Messler Gallery until January 6, 2021. For more info and to view the virtual tour, visit their website.

“Cross-Quet” by Beth Ireland


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