‘Elusive’ explores serious topics through playful media

It’s like walking into an artist’s vision of Armageddon.

Propped against the sofa are several ornately framed portraits of American presidents rendered in layers of reflective foil and mirrored glass. The coffee table is a jumble of images of grieving women, wounded children and men plummeting from buildings, while the bookshelf plays host to a bag of army men and toy grenades. In the middle stands 22-year-old Desiree D’Alessandro, electronic media major, who is preparing for her 2008 exhibition, Elusive.

“Please excuse the mess,” she said cheerfully, navigating through the chaos of her two-bedroom apartment with ease.

As the Centre Gallery’s opening act for the spring semester, Elusive seeks to confront the gravest issues of politics and war through the most innocent of media: flipbooks, toy soldiers and zoetropes, spinning toys that use rotating images viewed through slots to create simple animations, to name a few. These unusual devices were chosen deliberately to challenge the collective consciousness of an age and nation in which most people witness world events from the comfort of their sofas.

“It’s about exploring the gaps in perception and understanding,” D’Alessandro said of her theme. “When viewers address the work they must address themselves. The work alludes to how we are responsible for the past, and it alludes to the future as well.”

For all of its high concepts, most of the provocative gadgets appearing in the exhibition were produced in D’Alessandro’s living room, some requiring several reworks and prototypes before settling into their final designs, and all of them labor-intensive, as D’Alessandro’s roommate and frequent assistant Dan Zimmie explained.

“The most challenging thing was getting the mirrors right,” he said, speaking of the reflective presidential portraits by the sofa. “Frosted paint didn’t work, and we thought about white paint but that didn’t work out. We tried chrome paint but that didn’t work either.”

“We eventually decided on foil wrap applied with glue and squeegee, cut very carefully with an X-acto blade,” D’Alessandro said.

No less difficult were the thaumatropes – panels printed on both faces whose images superimpose when spun – and the zoetropes. Add to this more than 1,000 painted toy soldiers and 10 flipbooks totalling more than 300 hand-cut frames and one can begin to appreciate the amount of work that went into the show.

“I just hope people treat them respectfully,” D’Alessandro said.

The concern is understandable, as Elusive combines unsettling tragedy and political criticism with playful – sometimes morbidly so – gimmicks that might seem to trivialize the pain they seek to represent. The flipbooks provide an excellent example of this, as the quick-paced and repetitive animated scenes that would normally be unsettling morph into humorous ones. In one instance an injured child’s wince becomes a win.

These transformations of human suffering may be more than viewers are willing to take, but its playfulness is the show’s most praiseworthy asset. Rather than degenerate into an evening news sob story or a mindless objection to the world’s injustices, Elusive challenges perceptions by putting a fresh spin on a trite subject.

Elusive will be on display at the Centre Gallery Jan. 7-18. The reception will be held Jan. 11 from 7 – 9 p.m.