May 7, 2010

Everyday Adventures examines the art of childhood

The Art Institute’s small but delightful new exhibit, Everyday Adventures Growing Up, is a child-sized peek into the weird and wonderful world of picture-book art. Featuring illustrations from Peter McCarty, Nancy Carlson, and Timothy Basil Ering, the exhibit showcases the diversity and whimsy that different artists bring to the drawing table.

Split between the Ryan Education Center and Gallery 10, most of Adventures is on display just downstairs of the Institute’s main hallway. The layout presents the artwork in two ways, combining the traditional setup of framed artwork on the walls, with more kid-accessible low tables with the picture books themselves available for reading. Such presentation is a wise choice, as it invites viewers young and old to consider not just the published product, but also the art and the artist behind the book.

The featured artists represent a wide range of narrative and artistic styles. McCarty, winner of the prestigious Caldecott Honor award for his 2003 book Hondo and Fabian, creates a soft and simple world with his warm and elegant pencil drawings. His illustrations, while calm and spare, are inviting and lively—the interactions between a little boy and the horned, blue-scaled playmate he creates in scenes from Jeremy Draws a Monster are winsome and charming without being cloying.

Author and illustrator Carlson’s images are bolder and brighter, with her subject matter less fantastical and more the stuff of day-to-day childhood. Her animal protagonists (Louanne Pig and Loudmouth George, to name a few) deal with familiar experiences of starting kindergarten or trying out for the talent show in a friendly, colorful tableau of home and school. Her neat, uncomplicated style is perhaps the most conventional of the three, but it is well suited to the positive messages of her books.

The work of the exhibit’s third artist, however, is much less tidy. Ering, illustrator of the 2004 recipient of the Newbery Medal The Tale of Despereaux, draws with the lively swoops and splashes of color of an imagination gone wild. His artwork is an excellent example of the medium’s ability to convey a deeper narrative than one that would just involve the story: In a scene from 2009’s Finn Throws a Fit!, the titular tantrum comes across in dark scribbles of anger above Finn’s head.

But the most enjoyable pictures are easily those from 2003’s The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone, where we see a young boy build himself a creepy but loveable new friend in a world chockablock with layers of scratches and muddy splotches.

If the exhibit has a shortcoming, it is only one of scale: It would have been nice to see a larger breadth of artists and styles represented. For adult-sized attention spans, a once-around through the gallery goes by in a flash, and many may be tempted to just skip over the show altogether. However, it’s commendable of the Art Institute to give the oft-neglected art of children’s books a high-profile platform, and I suspect that for the exhibit’s smaller visitors, the size is just right.