Visual Arts

"Spyhopping: Adventures with Sue Chenoweth" at SMoCA Proves Life Is Just a Game

What looks like child's play on the surface can hide a deeper meaning. Before they were whitewashed by Disney, Grimm's Fairy Tales were graphic morality lessons. In medieval times, board games confronted issues of life and death. Inspired by the 16th-century Game of Goose, local artist Sue Chenoweth combined her own works with pieces from SMoCA's permanent collection to form a room-size game for the exhibit "Spyhopping," at Scotts­dale Museum of Contemporary Art.

It's a playful exhibit that illustrates life lessons about man's struggle with nature.

Dashed lines and decals mark the path the visitor's eye should take through the exhibit, with Chenoweth's bold pieces representing the landmarks on the game board and the other works representing the squares in between. A quirky hand-drawn map handout reveals Chenoweth's thought process in choosing some of the other works. Many are banal landscapes, though James Turrell's gorgeous moon photos and Kara Walker's sassy black-and-white lithograph hiding a macabre decapitation scene stand out among the weeds.

Chenoweth opens with contrasting pieces of her own, one featuring a cold, barren landscape of sketchy trees surrounding a neon-orange campfire and the other a crazed blur of multi-color autumn foliage. Her childlike scribbles can be off-putting when placed alongside traditional art, which is why the game format works so well. It's easier to accept a free-form style when it's part of something we associate with children. But when you look closely, Chenoweth's work serves up themes that aren't kid-friendly.

Take Travel Well Because Smoke Follows Beauty, for example. Thick, wavy blue lines snake through the piece like a road map, surrounding campsites, and a roaring fire. A kidney-shape patch of red felt forms a blood pool between two tents. In another tent, a cartoon figure screams. Combine that with the painted bear paw at the bottom of the piece and it's clear that Chenoweth experienced a traumatic event. Turns out her tent was shredded by a bear during a childhood camping trip. She was unharmed. Still, it's an unsettling piece.

The campfire also appears in Ziggurat and Chipmunk, in which a realistically painted chipmunk is depicted beside a Mesopotamian stepped temple called a ziggurat. Representative of the "inn" square of the Game of Goose, this piece is expected to be inviting. Instead, the starkness of the crudely drawn temple and an empty manger scene placed on a nearby pedestal gives the impression that Chenoweth's inn is more like the Bates Motel.

A more welcoming scene emerges later in the game. A rusty vintage patio table set in the center of the gallery is cluttered with pastel-colored melamine dishes. Taxidermy animals peer over teacups and hide inside bowls. The installation addresses the realities of man versus animal with the whimsy of a Disney film. The chipmunks look like they're having a ball toppling Chenoweth's dish collection. Then again, they ended up stuffed and mounted.

In Journey Towards Siberia, Chenoweth introduces another animal: whales. The piece is a scrawled and painted mess of shapes meant to resemble water and land, with a series of humpback whales crudely drawn in red at the bottom. How do the whales fit in? "Spyhopping" is the jumping action a whale performs to see what's on the water's surface. The exhibit also features a whale decal "migrating" throughout. It's a nice touch, but the camping theme and the game design are so strong that the whales just muddy the water. Perhaps Chenoweth should've saved them for her next exhibit.

Though Chenoweth's style can be described as childlike, her mastery of color is evident in Paradise and Spyhopping. In Paradise, midnight blues and hazy purples form a serene sky reminiscent of a misty morning on the coast. A jeweled crown is placed just out of reach at the top of the piece. The colors continue into the exhibit's title piece, in which a heavier hand with the deeper shades turns the sky into a formidable expanse above a sea of flaming logs. Scribbled human forms, kneeling as if in prayer, do their best to hold the storm at bay. If this is what happens when man and nature are in conflict, we're in serious trouble.

Using the Game of Goose as an inspiration and her childhood experiences as an example, Chenoweth is able to attack serious issues in a way palatable to all ages. This isn't Chutes and Ladders, folks. You practically need a Ph.D. to interpret the symbolism in Chenoweth's pieces. But if you take the time to peel back the whimsical layers, you'll find complex and powerful themes worth exploring.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden