There's a scene in It's A Wonderful Life where George Bailey, feeling the American Dream closing around his heels, is delivering a speech to would-be girlfriend Mary about all the things he doesn't want. "I don't want any plastics, and I don't want any ground floors, and I don't want to get married -- ever -- to anyone!" George shouts, not realizing that his fate as a little plastic groom on top of a wedding cake is already signed, sealed and delivered.
Not wanting any plastics is something Newport, Ore., artist David Gilhooly can't relate to. His new show at Eastern Washington University is composed of plastic kids' meal toys, plastic-coated jigsaw puzzle pieces, plastic figures and plastic picture frames. He goes out in search of this stuff, hitting fast food chains and Goodwill, finding in these forgotten treasures the potential for art. The art itself explores various aspects of the American dream, contemporary religion, the art world (both historic and present-day) and food.
"One of the big advantages of American culture as opposed to, say, Canadian culture, which I'm familiar with from living in Canada for a time, is that there are so many wonderful choices," says Gilhooly, whose show "David Gilhooly: Plastics" opens today. "It's like that old Robin Williams movie Moscow on the Hudson, where he goes to the grocery store and he's confronted with aisle after aisle of just different brands of coffee. He passes out from the effort of trying to make a decision. That's actually the only good thing about the movie, but it really illustrates that in America there are so many choices -- and not just in how many brands there are, but also in where you live and work and what you do."
The works in this show stem from a long and notorious artistic career. Gilhooly, inspired by the experimental works of his instructors Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Arneson, made a name for himself at the University of California-Davis in the late-1960s as one of the founders of the San Francisco Funk Ceramic Movement. In the 1970s, Gilhooly lived in Saskatchewan for a time and became internationally recognized for his FrogWorld series. Influenced by Greek and Egyptian mythology, art history, religion (especially Catholicism) and a deep love of food, Gilhooly's anthropomorphic, humorous figures explored many of the artist's concerns and fascinations.
By the 1980s, however, Gilhooly had become quite sick of both frogs and clay. He turned to the less-terrestrial charms of plexiglass in his new sculptural works. The transparent candy colors lent themselves well to a series of Hawaiian shirts, and to B-movie disaster architectural studies. Gilhooly enjoyed the effects he was able to achieve with Plexiglas, but working with it was no picnic. He began to experiment with ready-made found plastic objects in a variety of settings. The resulting assemblages, many of which will appear in the EWU show, incorporate Gilhooly's wit and offer a new arena in which to explore important themes.
Guiseppi's Shirt Talks Back, a garment composed of plastic toy vegetables, is a direct reference to Italian painter Guiseppi Arcimboldo, whose portraits in fruits, flowers and vegetables Gilhooly remembers seeing in National Geographic as a child. Good Luck, Mr. Ed combines both a fascination with death and a proliferation of orchids. The King and His Elvi Gather for a Last Supper of the King's Favorite Dishes is just that. Gilhooly bought an Elvis Presley cookbook and made all the best dishes in plastic for a table of Elvis silhouettes. My Dog Spot's Halloween Costume and Shirt for a Cereal Killer both incorporate dry goods -- one kind for canines and one kind for people -- which Gilhooly says "will last as long as the plastic."
Gilhooly loves cheesy kitsch and will happily use high school student paintings as backgrounds, the structure of DaVinci's Last Supper for composition, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as subjects. That is not to say that his art can be summarized as "cute" or "whimsical."
"The people who take art very seriously don't take me very seriously, and that's okay. But on the other hand, I get annoyed when every now and then I come across an article that describes my work as whimsical," he says. "I use humor to bring people into the art. It's like the handle of a refrigerator door. You can't get into the refrigerator without the handle; my humor is the handle in this case. It's a way to make the art accessible, but that's not all there is to it."