“Let’s Play” is the new Susan Hensel art exhibition on susanhenselprojects.com and artsy.net . Susan trained, over 50 years ago, primarily as a sculptor. This series is a return to her roots as a builder of objects, utilizing the materials and processes of bookbinding, box building, textile production and painting. It is an ongoing project that has accumulated a variety of light-hearted, colorful playthings. “Art is, indeed, a serious business, but that does not mean it can’t be fun!” –Susan Hensel
Discover “Let’s Play” – a Susan Hensel art exhibition.
Let’s Play is a series of interactive fidget toys made by textile artist Susan Hensel. These works are joyous and effervescent in design, encouraging adults to engage in the mysterious act of play.
The forms are varied: fabric chalices filled with fabric coins, folded fabric constructions, different Seussical blocks to be arranged and rearranged, and gear-like blocks that can be put together in various ways. These make up the array of adult fidget-toys in Let’s Play.
“Molecular Disambiguation” is the most ambitious. It is a series of circular disks with embroidered patterns and velcro backing, allowing the user to place them on a black sheet in any order. The patterns overall relate, but there is no single way to organize them. One is allowed to arrange and rearrange, and it is in the interaction itself that the object finds its voice.
The colors and soft shapes of every piece are encouraging, the sturdy materials forgiving. These works don’t attempt to refer to interactive fidget toys, they simply are toys — a way for adults to interface with play.
Whereas most art is emphatically hands off, Let’s Play explores the hands on. The series integrates concepts from industrial design as well as fine art. This carries the same unique combination of processes and approaches that run through much of Hensel’s work. Her merging of traditional craft with industrial methods of production continues here to produce something so rare in the art world — a tactile experience.
The fidget toy is the ultimate tactile experience. It makes no pretension to simulate an activity. There is no flavoring to appear as something it isn’t. This makes them unique as objects meant to be enjoyed simply through the process of touching and interacting with them.
Hensel leans into this complete lack of representation, opting to create what at first glance appears to be abstract sculpture, the kind typically roped off from viewers to be seen and not touched. While abstract painting can comment on more fundamental features of color, line and shape than representation, so too can abstract toys touch on more fundamental features of play — like free decision making, voluntary participation and self-directed action.
That is why these pieces only become their full selves when someone handles them, moves them around. Once animated, they are revealed to be curious puzzles with no end goal. These are not games, there are no outcomes. While the pieces themselves are finely crafted, they always live in limbo, waiting for the next pair of hands to move them into their next configuration.
In that way, they not only encourage adults to break through the expectations and limits of adulthood to seek out play, but they do so inside a fine art setting that is so often lacking in free experimentation and interaction by the viewer. Spaces that present art are so often overcome by a hush, an unspoken set of rules that those in attendance must show their respect by speaking in reverent whispers. We are expected to stand and nod thoughtfully and move on, never reaching out, never giggling.
Let’s Play brings joy back into the art space. Even the name of the series drops the formality and encourages an experience where viewers are level with the artwork.
This reflects Hensel’s career-long exploration of embedding concepts in the process of creation. By creating objects that are so radically open to the audience, ideas of user experience and fun are brought into fine art. At the same time, these objects bring fine art to the realm of toys. Can toys speak to the human condition, the moment we find ourselves in? Let’s Play emphatically says: Yes.
There could not be a better time for these pieces.They rise out of the zeitgeist, arriving to affirm and relieve what we are all feeling: fidgeting energy combined with a desire to simply enjoy things again. The levity in the series and the collapse of socially imposed barriers allows the viewer, now participant, to breathe easy, to relax and enjoy.
The self-soothing effects of aimless play connect to the psychological weight and confined existence under current pandemic conditions and growing concerns around environmental and economic catastrophe.
In a time where our headspace is dominated by news delivered instantaneously, we constantly slip into a narrative built around information tribes and anxiety-filled headlines. We use our hands to scroll through media, and yet these works remind us that our hands can be set to something else. Through their movement, they can deliver our focus out of the clutter, the unsettling echoes of illness and outrage.
This is the triumph of Let’s Play: to give us an opening to a different headspace. These works welcome us with open arms into fun that is made through the body. It is meditative, redemptive. It is not a distraction from the events in the world, it is a necessary respite. When we remember that not everything has to be so serious, we can understand when something is. And what’s more, we can appreciate returning to our lives a little happier than before.
Hensel’s previous work appears in hundreds of exhibitions, including dozens of solo shows, across a fifty-year span. The Susan Hensel Gallery has served as home for many early and mid-career artists. Hensel is the recent recipient of grants and residencies from the Jerome Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, and Ragdale Foundation.
-Jonathon M. Clark, independent critic