Mimi Kato’s Pay Day

Mimi Kato’s Pay Day

Summer is traditionally a season for outdoor fun — mountain hikes and beach rambles. But the Columbia Museum of Art offers a compelling indoor alternative. Right in the heart of the city, visitors can take indoor journeys through landscapes that combine humor, beauty and food for thought.

The museum entrance currently features one of four large-scale inflatable works by Cleveland-based artist Jimmy Kuehnle. Entitled Winking Windbags, the three pink, inflatable, ovoid sculptures float just above the five doors providing access to Boyd Plaza. This playful canopy offers a foretaste of what is inside the first-floor galleries: Wow Pop Bliss features three interactive, room-sized environments that the artist invites visitors to circumnavigate and, in so doing, embrace with their eyes, ears and fingertips.

Polychrome Dome, designed especially for this exhibition at the CMA, is the most sophisticated of the pieces. Thermal sensors respond to the body temperatures of those entering the giant nylon igloo-like structure, triggering LED lights in various colors — blue, violet, purple and green — and musical selections by singer-songwriter Tony Cavallario. Kuehnle’s skills as both artist and engineer are on full display in this work, and the result is mesmerizing.

After lingering a while in this immersive, air-filled cocoon, one enters a flickering red and white labyrinth of inflated polyester columns and arches encompassing two galleries. Kuehnle’s Wiggle, Giggle, Jiggle encourages visitors either to lose themselves in an illuminated maze or perhaps to play hide-and-seek with their companions.

The fourth and final installation is one Kuehnle calls Punch Bubbles. Herein one can gently squeeze between Arduino-controlled, LED-infused inflatables, stopping midway between the polyester surfaces to become one with the contiguous sculptures and eventually emerge on the other side with hands or feet or head popping out first, creating a selfie-worthy image.

Wow Pop Bliss should bring out everyone’s inner child, making museum visitors momentarily surrender themselves to a sensory experience that converts the shapes and colors we associate with abstract expressionism into interactive kinetic sculptures.

Landscapes are also part and parcel of the second of two shows by notable contemporary artists now on view at the CMA. In her first-floor exhibition, Ordinary Sagas, Japanese-American artist Mimi Kato showcases photo montages featuring multiple female figures — images of the artist herself in various costumes — set against digitally manipulated backgrounds.

Of this two-gallery show, I was most impressed by seven pieces that make up a series entitled Wild Corporation. Herein Kato offers a playful and yet thought-provoking, interlocking narrative that follows the course of what appears to be an outdoor corporate retreat, with a host of contrived exercises intended to build organizational loyalty. 

In these images, Kato’s fantasy corporation employs two sets of young women — one in blue uniforms and the other in yellow, reflecting the dress code imposed on low-level female employees by the Japanese system. Separately, each team is given a host of challenges in order to make them more fit to face the rigors of the workplace. In the piece called Risk Management, for example, one team must figure out how to cope with a great black bear rearing up on its hind feet, growling and threatening them with tooth and claw. This is not the kind of risk normally envisioned in the boardroom. Neither is the concept of Pay Day customarily associated with having to kill one’s own food — in this case a young buck — slaughtering its meat and using its blood as a cosmetic.

When the yellow team and the blue confront each other, however, all hope for cooperation is lost. In one image, blue-garbed girls march through a snow-laden forest with members of the yellow team in tow, bound in silver and pink packing tape. Is it not true, the artist asks us, that women can sometimes not only fail to support one another but also at times be antagonistic to each other’s goals?

In the center of the exhibition space devoted to Wild Corporation are a host of handmade “weapons” that the artist has fashioned to support her photographic portrayal of these business ninjas. There is a crossbow largely made from stapler parts and a mace whose head is a tape dispenser festooned with tacks whose sharp points face outward. Perhaps, we are led to believe, the concept of war in the workplace may not seem so far-fetched to those who labor in the corporate battlefield.

This summer, the CMA invites us all to come inside and journey through landscapes, both physical and imaginary. Jimmy Kuehnle’s man-made spaces, fashioned of fabric and air, can be traversed on foot. Mimi Kato’s digital landscapes must be traveled with the mind’s eye. Both offer untold revelations.

What: Mimi Kato: Ordinary Sagas and Wow Pop Bliss: Jimmy Kuehnle’s Inflatable Art

Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.

When: Through Sept. 8

More: 803-799-2810, columbiamuseum.org

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