For a young child, the experience of the world tends to divide along certain lines. First, there’s the question of introjection or projection, a question typically answered by the oldest move in the toddler’s playbook — take the new thing, whatever it is, and put it in your mouth. If it’s good, and therefore worthy of further exploration (introjection), the child might murmur “yum.” If it’s no good, and the mouth-feel experiment yields a negative result (projection), the object is spit out, often with the accompanying judgment call of “yuck!”
But there’s another aspect of early experience that’s equally persistent later in life, and manages to remain remarkably nonjudgmental, and that’s the sense of wonder, which is the subject of a new exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF). Wonder is what happens when an object or experience strikes us as so rare, so exceptional, that the ordinary process of judgment, or, in the case of the child, the standard move of popping whatever it is into your mouth, gets suspended, and the mind confronts the new experience without its usual repertoire of moves designed to put it into some recognizable category. Wonder happens when one sees a rainbow, or hears wind chimes, or tastes the marvelous complexity that is an oyster for the first time. Judgment stops, and the mind may reel, but the body goes on feeling and does so without the encumbrance of existing associations.
With this idea of wonder in mind, one encounters the 14 works in CAF’s Flights from Wonder exhibit. And, if that’s not enough, try looking at them as I did, with one of the Youth Docent Crew who have been trained by CAF specifically for the project. My tour guide on a recent Saturday was named Alec, age 7. In an understandable response to what was probably an overwhelming situation, and a great reminder of how different adult expectations are on every level, the first thing Alec did was to forget everything about the show, including its name. Yet a moment later, having been gently reminded of what he was doing, Alec led the group straight to his favorite piece in the show, “The Rainbow Vortex” (2012), an amazing, room-size inflatable installation by Miami-based artists Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, who operate under the nom de art of FriendsWithYou. Alec chose well — “The Rainbow Vortex” is a great piece, maybe the best use I’ve seen of this particular space in CAF. The rotation of the giant inflatable ball and the sensations created by the alternating stripes on both its surface and the walls that surround it truly do “suck all the darkness away!” as the artists claim in their statement.
Next it was on to another Alec-selected work, “Stool Tower” (2012) by Christopher Chiappa. This vibrantly colored piece puts tubby-looking stools within easy reach on three levels of shelves, and soon we were all seated, chatting amiably as Alec asked us what we thought of the piece. Lesson learned? Let the 7-year-old pick what you look at, and you will definitely have fun. From there, we mulled the giant macaroni necklace of Martha Friedman, “Noodle” (2007), and her equally oversized, cast-rubber wall pieces, “Loaf 1,” “Loaf 2,” and “Loaf 3,” all of which resemble giant slices of bologna. Try introjecting that! The rest of the show, which includes intriguing works by Shinique Smith, Phoebe Washburn, Jon Pylypchuk, Mindy Shapero, Liz Craft, and Carolyn Salas, succeeds admirably in creating and sustaining that moment of wonder, prior to judgment, in which we join together for a collective “wow.”