at the Ricky Renier Gallery

My dictionary has no less than 19 definitions for the word “play.” The definition most appropriate to the wonderfully varied and engaging sculpture of Joseph Litzenberger, however, describes play as the natural activity of children. Play is important to creativity, because the most creative art making involves free-spirited experimentation with materials and concepts that’s like informed child’s play. Most of the pieces in this show–sometimes making direct references to childhood in their materials or arrangement–convey an open-ended visual playfulness that is both emotionally inviting and intellectually stimulating.

In general, these ten pieces are composed of either found household materials, like couch stuffing and crayons, or more institutional materials, like chrome-plated steel. Because these pieces are straightforwardly constructed and use a limited number of contrasting elements, placement of the component parts becomes a crucial formal and conceptual issue. This is perhaps most evident in Chatter, a group of six small chrome chair shapes arranged in a circle around a central chair, also of chrome. These knee-high forms look precariously balanced and incomplete. Horizontal and vertical sections are arbitrarily joined at their ends to form a series of 90 degree angles. Each chair is missing at least one arm, leg, or back support, creating a sense of disequilibrium and making them dysfunctional as furniture. Chatter also offers a textbook example of how parallax functions in visual perception. As you walk around the circle of chairs, you notice how the overall geometric pattern of their lines changes as you move. In addition, the shiny chrome segments reflect fragments of the surface of the gray-painted wooden gallery floor. The shadowed lines of the crevices between the planks create subtle striped reflections on the chrome bars, and these also change as you move.

Chatter invites all sorts of emotional dialogue as well as different visual perceptions. The chairs’ small size jogs childhood memories of school and games, while the sophistication of the chrome steel suggests an office environment. Even before looking at the title sheet, I’d been reminded of a time in kindergarten when I’d been sitting at a table with a number of classmates. A couple of us were whispering, so the teacher had tied a cloth band over our mouths to keep us quiet. And, of course, we cried. Poignantly, Chatter comments on the uncertainty we experience in both childhood and adulthood.

Other pieces, more lighthearted, seem inspired by particular children’s toys. Cut-Drip-Stack is a shoulder-high tower of 11 stacked steel cubes; it’s crowned by a stick shape wrapped tightly in wire, something like an antenna. Reminiscent of an infant’s alphabet blocks, the casually stacked cubes seem to invite rearrangement; the tower’s projecting shape also hints at the impulse behind the erection of skyscrapers. Number Ten is another piece that employs a vertical row of cubes, but this time the reference is to a child’s watercolor set or box of Crayolas. These ten cubes have been formed by pouring molten crayon into a long narrow mold partitioned into ten separate chambers. Each chamber holds a different color–red, green, brown, blue, and so on–which has hardened into place. The whole mold, displaying the different colors, has been hung on the wall. Number Ten seems to point out the childhood practice of organizing objects according to their hue, and may imply that this drive to categorize, which begins innocently enough in childhood, has both positive and negative repercussions in adult society.

The references to children’s games are absent in Litzenberger’s found-object sculptures, but the playful approach remains. Untitled Remnant forms an abstract, geometrical wall piece out of chunky panels made up of two different types and colors of couch stuffing. The top half is made up of six wide vertical stripes of batting, and the bottom half displays three horizontal stripes bisected by a central vertical stripe. This piece, with its finger-tempting cottony textures and relaxed construction, is delightfully approachable. Individual panels, alternately dark green and yellow-beige, have been loosely joined together. Clumps of batting have sometimes been permitted to spill beyond the defined borders of the whole piece, which is roughly rectangular. One may discern a bit of jesting here, for Remnant seems to imply that today’s household junk could be tomorrow’s hot new artwork. Ratty old furniture even the garbage collector wouldn’t take away could be worth thousands to corporate art consultants and private collectors.

A similar joke seems at work in Unknown; Nov. 15. Twenty-three white porcelain toilet-tank lids are arranged one above the other on a tall, freestanding structure with 23 horizontal shelves. Like Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal, which created such an uproar in New York in 1917, this piece seems to poke fun at the art market while it pays humorous homage to Duchamp. There also seems to be another layer of meaning, however. This collection of lids has a rather melancholy, personal side. The title, which goes on for several lines, itemizes the date of origin of each lid. Many of the dates are unknown, but some are as specific as “June 22, 1928,” or “Nov. 4, 1964.” The dates, and the toilet’s relationship to the human body, seem to anthropomorphize these lids, giving them a lonely, mortal feeling. Decay and waste are an integral part of the life cycle. One can’t help reading death into this orderly, morguelike storage of cold, bone white remains.

The warm, playful way Litzenberger’s work evokes personal memories and other associations is what makes this show so enjoyable. And since everyone’s life experience is different, the number of readings and responses to these sculptures is infinite. But within this open-endedness, a few universals guide our interpretation: we all had childhoods, we all must deal with how to live mature lives, we all must die. Litzenberger’s experimental approach to materials and their arrangement invites a two-way communication that allows us to feel we’re participating in a crucial dialogue.