There was a time when toys were not plastic, but made of wood. Sized to fit small hands and simply shaped with rounded edges, they were often laminated together from two or three kinds of wood. Surfaces were usually a treat to the eye, with stripes and circles painted on them in primary colors, shallow grooves sometimes outlined painted areas, and shiny, clear shellac elsewhere. Toys were inevitably tactile—we expected to handle them, after all—and they withstood much banging around. We see this history in Emmett Kerrigan’s exhibition at the Elmhurst Art Museum, on view until March 21. As he celebrates wooden toys, he explores form, color, material, perspective, and more.
At the center of the gallery is a game of tops for visitors to play. Present at the opening, the artist demonstrated his creation to delighted children. Tabletop height, Kerrigan’s game is a shallow, wooden, tray-like construction, roughly four feet long, 2.5 feet wide, and divided into three connected compartments. The artist provides three kinds of top: a thick one whose form recalls a lighthouse; several smaller ones that recall little fat cacti, but crowned with tassels of yellow thread; and some tops of conventional design.
To play, you select a top, support it vertically with a special handle, wind a red string around it, and pull the string’s free end to start the top spinning. It careens unpredictably through the compartments, falling over when it loses momentum.
Emmett Kerrigan. Paragon A-17. 2005. Enamel on laminated wood. 27" x 23" x 6". Image courtesy of the Elmhurst Museum of Art.
A wall piece called Top Boxes (2006-2007) consists of 14 shelves, each with a different size and shape top on it. All are so seductively tactile that we want to grab them off the shelves, play with them, and maybe take some home. Less corrupting is Paragon A-17 (2005, seen above), a wall piece that consists of seventeen decorated top forms of different sizes which the artist has arranged inside a frame to look like tops as seen from above. To make this piece, Kerrigan squashed down the top’s shape to make it plump and roly-poly. He eliminated the point on which tops spin to create tops without bottoms—or bottomless tops, depending on your point of view.
Paragon 9-A and Paragon 9-C (both 2005) are oil paintings with circular forms of different sizes that could be bulls-eyes or large storage tanks as seen from the air. Kerrigan’s subdued colors and lines connecting the forms distance them from the toys. The oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, and the surrounding industrial landscape are said to have inspired the artist.
Emmett Kerrigan. Topographic Green, Mint, Yellow. 2007. Enamel on laminated wood. Image courtesy of the Elmhurst Art Museum
Topographic Green, Mint, Yellow (2007, seen above) and Topographic Yellow (2007) are framed wooden constructions made of brightly-colored shapes that Kerrigan has arranged to suggest farm topography as seen from above. The artist leaves imperfections in some colored areas to remind us that this work was made by hand. Some pieces in the Topographic series (there are more) have circles in them that could be silos. Elegance, simplicity, and beautiful color make these pieces the most appealing in this show.
Ultimately, Emmett Kerrigan has produced a strong, very craftsman-like show with much variety, complexity, and an appealing sense of play. We can’t ask for much more.
--Victor M. Cassidy
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