Lamplighters installation (Photo by Max Wagner)
There’s an age-old question: “Is something art just because you hang it on the wall?” The “Lamplighters” exhibition at Vulpes Bastille asks a variation of this: “Is something a lamp just because it has a light bulb?” For the exhibition, more than 40 artists were invited to explore the idea of making a ceramic lamp. They delivered an astonishing variety of objects, giving viewers a chance to explore their own preconceptions about ceramic art and light bulbs.
Entering the Vulpes Bastille exhibition space, one immediately notices the unusual lighting. No overhead spotlights brighten the white walls, instead the dim gallery space is lit by the art objects themselves, each sculpture casting its light onto adjacent objects. There are blazing incandescent bulbs, cool LEDs, blinking Christmas lights, sparkling strobes, all casting dancing shadows across the white gallery walls.
Exhibition curator Adams Puryear invited a wide range of artists. Some are indeed professional ceramicists who normally make lamps. Others are ceramicists but had never made a lamp before. And many of the artists do not normally work in ceramics but were invited by Puryear to Belger Crane Yard Studios (where he is a resident ceramic artist) to try out something new.
Puryear took inspiration from an 1885 poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which a child gazes out the window in curiosity at a lamplighter doing his nightly rounds bringing light to the dark streets. Puryear embraced this childlike wonder by giving the artists very few constraints, only that the objects needed lights and needed to be ceramic. And from there, he helped get them the tools and resources they needed to achieve their visions.
The range of objects goes from fashionable to folk, high art to kitsch. Perhaps the most “lamp-like” is a beautiful untitled piece by Roth Ayers Design featuring a vintage fiberglass lampshade and ceramic body with art deco designs. Other objects feel much more “high art,” like Sun Young Park’s “Juicy Groggy,” an enormous pink ceramic sculpture with bulbous features and a blazing light bulb on top. Andrew Mcilvaine’s “Look at Bright You’re Shining” gives off the signs and signals of minimalist conceptualism with its jet-black ceramic house sitting atop two concrete cinder blocks.
When it comes to camp, Puryear has a sculpture of his own, an enormous white ceramic tower emblazoned with a crudely drawn skull and demon face. Crowned with a technicolor strobe light, the sculpture feels like an oversized prop for a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Susi Lulaki’s lamps embrace a whimsical folk-art aesthetic, featuring anthropomorphic cats wearing clothes and hats and silly expressions.
John “Moose” Kimball’s work, “I See Stars,” features a spinning cylindrical lamp shade with stars cut into it, which cast moving shadows and light onto the gallery wall. Having a background in theater lighting, Kimball quipped that the only thing he’d have done differently for a theatrical show would be to paint the device black so the audience wouldn’t see it.
Walking around the circle of tables that hold the lamps, is like browsing a thrift store, where none of the objects are meant to go together yet must share the space. As one moves from object to object, each with its own sensibility and purpose, the exhibition functions as a sort of aesthetic taste testing. What makes something a fine art sculpture and what makes something “just” a lamp? Why does one feel chic and another feel folksy? Why do some feel intentionally naive and others deadly serious? After all, despite their aesthetic differences, these artworks are essentially and functionally the same: each is an object with a light bulb attached (otherwise known as lamps). Whether we realize it or not, our heads are absolutely full of ideas about what is and isn’t art, and “Lamplighters” is a great opportunity to examine those preconceptions.
“Lamplighters” continues at Vulpes Bastille, 1737 Locust St., through Oct. 22, when the gallery will hold a closing reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Hours are 6 to 9 p.m. the First Friday of every month and by appointment. For more information, visit www.instagram.com/fpoafm/.