Playing around on North Campus
by Laura Bartlett
"He drove around all day looking for a rubber ducky," art grad student Todd Cashbaugh tells me in the airy Robbins Gallery in North Campus's Art and Architecture Building. "It was so frustrating," agrees Mark Nielsen, the six-foot-tall, white-haired, elflike gallery director. In front of us is Nielsen's contribution to the gallery's Playground Show, which runs through August 15 and features around twenty playful paintings, photographs, and . . . thingies . . . by U-M grad students. "We wanted to see if we could have fun making art," says Nielsen.
His piece is a little white shelf with a puddle shape sketched on in pencil, under a map showing oceanic drift patterns of an accidental spillage of rubber duckies from a ship full of toys. "My piece is about the Internet," says Nielsen. "About how things come back to you." I ponder this elusive theme as we regard the shelf with its invisible ducky.
Nielsen's shelf should have been painted blue and beducked by now. The whole show is running behind it opened days ago. It's a stroke of luck the incompleteness lets me watch Nielsen and Cashbaugh have fun making art.
Cashbaugh rolls white paint onto a gray background surrounding his big pink flower shape on the wall. Several pictures, flower cutouts, and a man's portrait are tacked onto the flower. "Stop you're done," says Nielsen, surveying the work. "I can't paint over my dad," agrees Cashbaugh. "I think at some point you have to come back and paint the gray again," says Nielsen, adding, "I like how this blob kind of ended up sort of like a kidney shape." "I've been thinking about bodily functions a lot lately," says Cashbaugh, who tacks on a paper that says, in scrawled handwriting, "Ding ding dong."
The two switch on some animated peep booths nearby, brightly painted boxes decorated with fur, leather, and orange net, and we peer at little mystical movies of
demolition derbies and martial arts. One box pings and beeps like a pinball machine. Nielsen draws a connection between the noise and "that ding-dong thing you hung up," he tells Cashbaugh. "People will be able to hear it from there kind of a . . . harmonic convergence."
Nielsen's nickname, "Uncle Art," is a play on the title of Anti-Art, an earlier dadaist work he made that stirred up ire when it was shown in the downtown Matrix Gallery. Nielsen decided to play it safe by adopting a more avuncular name, which became his Robbins Gallery persona and handy alter ego. "Uncle Art can do anything!" says Nielsen gleefully. "Uncle Art never cares. . . . Uncle Art never gets in trouble!" Nielsen's planning some similarly fun show themes this coming fall. With this guy in charge, I'd recommend that you go.
[Originally published in August, 2003.]