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BLOW UP II: Inflatable Contemporary Art

November 4, 2023 - January 27, 2024

Coming to the Gregg Museum of Art & Design on November 4, 2023, BLOW UP II: Inflatable Contemporary Art explores the medium of inflatable art with figurative, conceptual, and abstract imagery. These large-scale inflatable sculptures, conceived by nine artists and art collectives, connote fun and whimsy, are familiar yet strange, and challenge the definition of art. Here, in an unusual feat, artists use air as an active tool in their work to subvert our perspective and surprise us.

Inflatables have a long history, dating as far back as the 18th century, and were initially perceived as innovative, if not magical, objects. Today, inflatables are often associated with happy memories. Lawn inflatables, bouncy houses, and party balloons are ubiquitous at holidays and celebrations. Water wings, inflatable inner tubes, and rafts conjure thrilling vacation memories. The awe-inspiring hot air balloon challenges our feet-on-the-ground perspective, allowing us to levitate and explore the land from above like a bird. The inflatable is also well-known for its effective marketing abilities. Who hasn’t been drawn to the dancing street inflatable near the shopping center or the massive blimp with a scrolling electronic sign flying over a stadium? Plain and simple: humans are attracted to inflatables. However, what happens to our experience of large, art-filled objects – typically encountered outdoors – when we place them in an art gallery and play with their scale? The result is what you will find in BLOW UP II, the second iteration of Bedford Gallery’s traveling inflatable exhibition. 

This show’s roster of artists includes Nicole Banowetz, Sharon Engelstien, FriendsWithYou, Josh Harker, Susan Lee-Chun, Matt Ritchie, Lizbeth Rossof, Jen Stark, and Max Streicher–many of whom have never worked in the inflatable medium previously. The resulting artworks reflect various themes, including consumerism, pop culture, history, and even mortality. Some convey a surreal sensibility through oversized scale or an uncanny human connection, like Max Streicher’s sculptures that appear to be living, breathing beings. From the outset, the artworks in BLOW UP II appear fun and playful; however, there is a touch of melancholy throughout the show as we are reminded that these objects live their full lifecycle every day. Once the gallery lights dim, the artworks deflate and await their resurrection the following day. There is an odd relationship with these inflatable objects as they too are dependent on air.

Another oddity is the unusual coupling of subject matter and media – for example, Josh Harker’s sculpture, Crania Geodesica. Harker marries soft materials with a subject matter that is the opposite in reality–a hard, human skull. Through scale and medium, viewers are asked to reflect upon the fragileness and importance of the skull. Artist Lizabeth Rossof’s 5 XI’AN AMERICAN WARRIORSseries subverts cultures as she translates stone and Chinese history into portable American pop culture idols. 

Then there is form. What exactly is Sharon Engelstein’s large, pink, billowy sculpture? Engelstein has left her creature open to interpretation. Is it friend or foe? One could say the same about Matt Ritchie’s rat inflatable. Is it cute or terrifying? Does it conjure up ideas of lab testing, or do you want to cuddle with it? Perhaps the idea is to evoke a sense of compassion for the misconceived and vulnerable. 

Amusement is undeniably evoked by several of the works in BLOW UP II. The Los Angeles-based art collective, FriendsWithYou is known for their friendly, anime-like characters that ooze happiness as they smile back at you, and Susan Lee-Chun’s enormous flamingos seem ready for a ride. The instant joy that is sparked when seeing everyday objects enlarged to an awe-inspiring scale allows viewers to revel in the hilarity and exuberance of these outsized and outlandish sculptures. Universal connections are built when we find familiarity in the absurd.

Holding our attention with wonderment and delight, BLOW UP II creates a spectacular, immersive environment that inspires deeper contemplation. By harnessing the power of air, the ideas and possibilities in art-making seem endless, and creativity takes flight.

BLOW UP II: Inflatable Contemporary Art was curated by Carrie Lederer and organized by Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California.