Crazy Eights

We all have a story about the Magic 8 Ball, the enigmatic Tyco toy that's been answering kids' questions with inscrutable replies -- "Signs Point To Yes," "Better Not Tell You Now," "Most Likely" and more -- in bedrooms, basements and backyards across the country for more than thirty years. Like its cousin the Ouija Board, 8 Ball gave us access to another, weirder dimension, a place perhaps where children weren't supposed to stray, and it's probably no accident that as grownups we still like to go there sometimes. Just ask artist Terry Wellman, a transplanted Texan who took the 8 Ball's advice to heart and turned it into an art show. Reply Hazy, Try Again: 20 Artists Reply to the Magic 8-Ball, an eclectic group exhibit curated by Wellman, opens Friday at Flux Gallery.

"It started almost one year ago and a thousand miles and two states away," Wellman explains. "My friend and I were sitting around with a Magic 8 Ball on a couch in Houston." They got to wondering how many of the toy's twenty responses were positive, negative or neutral in tone, finally determining that ten were positive and five each were neutral or negative. "Then we wondered what is on the inside of the 8 Ball, so we tore one apart and found a twenty-sided die." Wellman didn't stop there. He began to consider visually representing all twenty sides in an 8 Ball series. "But there's no way in hell I can do that," he admits. "It would take me too long to do them all myself. So instead we said, 'Let's put together a show, using one artist for each response.'"

He started recruiting in Houston before moving to Denver. Here he put out a call for entries, eventually pulling in a diverse group of artists ranging from established art professors to young hopefuls just starting out. Most were attracted more to his manifesto -- that tying quality artwork together with comprehensible, entertaining topics might attract a wider audience -- than to the 8 Ball theme itself. But all twenty, each of whom picked an 8 Ball response out of a hat, faced the challenge with the gusto of a student who's been given a stimulating assignment.

Boulder artist Dismas Rotta, who drew the title response, answered his challenge with a mixed-media collage attached to an old work table. "Before the show, I had no idea what an 8 Ball was," Rotta says of his involvement. But he was impressed with the task Wellman presented: "Terry seemed forthright and organized. He knew how to separate Woolworth art from art." To Rotta, "Reply Hazy, Try Again" implied "a question-and-answer thing, bantering back and forth." He decided to find the root of that banter by looking up definitions for each word in the phrase and then creating what he calls the "truth text." He ran the text, as well as the image of the 8 Ball, through a copy machine, combining the smeared and warped results across the surface of the work. "This is a great piece -- it either goes on the wall, or it goes on the floor," Rotta concludes. "The viewer has to make a decision."

Rotta's is only one of twenty very different approaches. Though Wellman says the exhibit is heavy in painting, it also features a variety of media and thematic slants. Riva Sweetrocket, for instance, worked through her disappointment at having to depict "Outlook Not So Good" by grabbing it by the throat. After all, when it comes to 8 Ball strategy, you've got to take what you get. "It turned out okay," she says of her rendition in pastels. "Instead of skirting around it, I confronted the title right on. I put the words right into the drawing, made them the central part of it and ran with that not-so-great theme. I didn't conclude anything, just went right for the jugular." Other artists contributed everything from 8 Ball grids to works in stark black and white and, because one answer is "Definitely Yes," at least one watercolor paean to love. And Flux founder Fred Zietz's acrylic offering, "You May Rely on It" is "a Big Brother-looking piece -- a three-quarter view of a face, just the eye and the bridge of the nose staring out at ya like in 1984, only all funky-colored."

That's all in the spirit of the 8 Ball, and it's fine with Wellman, who doesn't want to get too wrapped up in intent. Motive counts in his scheme, but not if it scares people away, and so many freewheeling points of view seemed like a good place to start: "I got the idea from the muses," he says. "Then I had to make up a good reason for why I chose it." He sees it both as a marketing venture and as a cultural bridge, banking on the show's accessibility to a public turned off by an art world obscured by a jumble of artsy theory and technical lingo. "I took a pop-art sensibility to make it more user-friendly," Wellman notes. "When you look in the paper and see the art listings, they just say, 'Here's Joe-Bob's Gallery, showing Fred Smith, new works on paper. Well, I don't know who Fred Smith is or what his work is like. So I decided to get the heads in the beds, as they say in hotel lingo. This way, people can swing open the door and get inside to see the art."

If it's in the cards, Wellman says, Reply Hazy is just the first of what he hopes to be whole series of like-minded group projects. He's already planning the next show: Based on the same premise as the current venture, it will use random messages found inside fortune cookies instead of the 8 Ball's fixed replies. And will it work? Wellman thinks so -- "Yes." "It is Certain." "Without a Doubt."

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd