Aaron Kramer and George Pappadakis

at Aron Packer Gallery, through May 20

One word often mentioned as a defining aspect of contemporary art is “playful,” a term used to describe a sense of prepubescent whimsy or a punning manipulation of political or religious iconography. Sometimes an artist will incorporate mass-produced toys in an ironic manner: Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, miniature soldiers and artillery. But as the artist exploits the metaphoric potential of these objects, they lose their “toyness.” To handle them in a gallery setting, let alone play with them, would seem rude, insensitive, or aesthetically damaging.

The items on display at the Aron Packer Gallery are another matter. Aaron Kramer’s spheroids and George Pappadakis’s wood constructions are so startlingly toylike and so warmly invite handling that they made me feel slightly ridiculous just viewing them, a sense that never left me, that in fact grew on me. These objects can be touched, if not actually played with, and it’s always a good sign if the art in a gallery makes me wonder what in the world I’m doing there–and what it’s doing there.

Ranging from three inches in diameter to beach-ball size, Kramer’s spheroids are at once all the same and all different. They look like weathered, slightly rusty versions of the plastic mesh Wiffle balls that briefly appeared in American backyards before the advent of Nerf. Kramer fashions them from material he finds in and around the streets of Los Angeles, where he lives (though he got his start in Chicago), including concrete-reinforcement rods, aluminum strapping, and bristles that have fallen off street-cleaning machines. He must be a real pack rat, because some of the spheres are made from collections of things that would not all be found together. The Tape Measure Spheroid, as its name suggests, is 100 or more metal tape measures curved and woven together, though none of the inch markings are exposed enough to reveal the actual circumference of the object. Knots of copper wire and nails hold the orbits in place.

The Juice Can Ball, which presents a solid surface to the viewer, illustrates Kramer’s dedication to his shape of choice. He made it from fragments of tin frozen-juice cans–that is, from before they were made out of cardboard and aluminum–but cut and hammered into shape, purged of any trace of their natural cylindrical state. It’s a shutout in favor of the spherical.

At other times, in works such as Nest, Bean, and Pill–all made of aluminum street-cleaner bristles–Kramer partially surrenders to the material and allows it to develop into other shapes. Yet even these departures attest to his mastery of form; though he allows mutations of the circle to mar the primal shape, he never lets it degenerate into a chaotic heap. This exhibit includes only one uncharacteristically chaotic form–Manic Egg, which has a long, rusty, ferocious-looking saw blade circling its middle. Apparently expressing frustration with the material or with life, it stands in stark contrast to the harmony of the rest of the works.

Kramer’s smaller spheroids are hanging on the wall, perhaps to remind people that they’re art and not toys. But most of them are displayed atop a coil from a discarded mattress. Poised on their Slinky ziggurats, they bob and sway slightly if tapped. Though bigger than the average cat toy, they work on essentially the same principle of attraction: they simultaneously frustrate and amuse. Inside the smaller spheres, which go by such straightforward titles as 8″ Spheroid w/ Beads and 4″ Spheroid w/ Ball, there are either golden beads strung on thin rods or small rubber balls decorated with overlapping postage stamps. Sometimes the inner balls roll along a coiled tube trapped inside. Figuring out how to hold a spheroid in order to best examine it is a game, but rather than producing a sense of nerve-racking competition, it provides an increasing appreciation for a celestial object that can be held in one hand.

Actually, I like the mattress-spring stands as much as I do the spheres themselves. Besides holding the objects up, they supply an intimacy and hint of voyeurism, inviting questions about whose bed they came from, who else slept there, and what they dreamed about. Yet they refuse to yield any answers. The coils treat the spheres erotically yet comically, playfully. In his choice of support Kramer may be alluding to Robert Rauschenberg’s painting on a bed (Bed, 1955), an epochal gesture that itself alluded to paintings of beds by Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh.

The wood constructions and puzzle sculptures of George Pappadakis fit the toy category even better: with the exception of a few works, including a tabletop Ferris wheel that rotates and whose seats swivel, they come apart into dozens of asymmetrical puzzle pieces. These works, even more than Kramer’s, provoke questions about whether they belong in an art gallery. Because they’re so toylike, the issue for some viewers is whether they’re art or craft–the suggestion being that there is a difference, and that this difference is based on the creator’s training, motivation, or choice of material. But making the distinction is as intellectually crippling as distinguishing films from movies–the problem, I think, of people who didn’t like Pulp Fiction.

Pappadakis’s work has a certain humility and lack of pretense: he crafts figures, animals, and playthings from chunks of bare, mismatched wood. They don’t have titles, another factor that makes them more like toys and less like art. But they do have a rudimentary charm, a folksy sense of the absurd. One wooden man wears a strip of cloth, standing for a tie, as his only garment. Two nails constitute shark’s teeth. Like Kramer’s spheres, Pappadakis’s playful sculptures belie the craft and labor of making them–and for Pappadakis the achievement is particularly impressive since he’s blind.

More important than his disability, however, is his age: he’s 72. Last month when my cousin turned six, I bought him a pocket-size version of Etch-A-Sketch, the decades-old drawing toy. It was promptly exchanged at the store for a Sega game cartridge. The Etch-A-Sketch belongs to a different era of toys, a better era it seems to me. And perhaps the nostalgia for toys that will not become obsolete, and even more for toys made by hand, drives the yearning to classify the creations of Kramer and Pappadakis as works of art.