It might blow up, but it won’t go pop.” So goes the refrain that plays throughout hip-hop trio De La Soul‘s 1993 album Buhloone Mindstate, a reference to how the group’s music could appeal to a devoted audience but would never translate to popular success. The Elmhurst Art Museum’s latest production, “Blow Up: Inflatable Contemporary Art”—a traveling exhibit that debuted at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California—retools that mantra: the artworks blow up (literally) and go pop (figuratively). As the title makes obvious, all the pieces on display are inflatable, and the show transparently intends to attract a wide audience. But these efforts aren’t just a bunch of hot air.
“For us this show is a natural,” says EAM executive director Jenny Gibbs. “It is accessible on a variety of levels: there’s a lot of joy and fun and pleasure in it, but obviously there’s also a lot of heavy content.”
The intellectual weightiness that Gibbs mentions has to do with inflatable art’s sophisticated origins. In the late 60s and early 70s, when the medium “peaked,” according to Gibbs, married artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude constructed 5,600 Cubicmeter Package, a 280-foot-tall, seven-ton installation that debuted in Kassel, Germany, in 1968 (it can be seen in a video as part of the exhibit). Other early works were similarly nonrepresentational, unlike the bouncy cages and inflatable rats that most people first think of as inflatable objects.
Though inflatable art fell out of fashion for a few decades, it experienced a resurgence during the turn of the century. This time around, however, the pieces acknowledged the often lowbrow status of air-filled forms. San Francisco artist Guy Overfelt contributes a life-size replica of the Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit; he developed the work in 1999 with the manufacturers of an inflatable monkey on the roof of a car dealership. Brooklyn sculptor Momoyo Torimitsu provides the simultaneously adorable, vibrant, and terrifying Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable, in which smiling oversize hot-pink bunny rabbits are intentionally crammed into a tight space, a commentary on the oppressiveness of both Japanese culture’s obsession with cuteness and the cramped living spaces of contemporary urban Japan.
Today, inflatable art tends to be a fusion of these distinct stages of the genre, best represented by a roomful of fairly recent creations by local artist and SAIC professor Claire Ashley. The weirdly misshapen sculptures are truck-size and resemble the asymmetrical forms of early inflatable art, but the fluorescent, childlike coloring (the result of Ashley’s use of spray paint and children’s backpacks as materials) connects the works to the turn-of-the-century pieces.
Arriving right on the heels of a popular show about Playboy magazine’s role in midcentury architecture, “Blow Up” is another exhibit meant to draw a broader audience to EAM, whether by Metra or, for Elmhurst residents, by foot. Hopefully there’s a high turnout, if only to offset what will likely be an enormous electrical bill.
“It’s not like a balloon where you blow it up, tie it up, and then you leave it.” Gibbs says. “These balloons are all continuously inflating. Every work in here has one or more fans working at all times.” v