Art exhibit at full tilt
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
MOUNT VERNON — Only a few seconds after a visitor enters the main gallery at the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, a loud mooing sound bounces off the aubergine walls and parquet floor.A menacing voice belches out some kind of dark warning from another corner.Right away it was clear: This was no ordinary art exhibit.The featured attraction is 42 pinball machines, representing 70 years of an industry that has seen video games take over in arcades, bowling alleys and taverns.
Being quiet in this exhibit is not an option. At any time, three or four of the pinball machines are set on "free play." Reverence be damned. The lights, music and sounds of the machines - including a fairly authentic moo - fill the gallery.The way Kevin Sharp, Cedarhurst's director of visual arts, explains it, pinball machines are a history lesson in pop culture. The backboards and tabletops reflect what was foremost in the minds of the game's chief players - teenage boys - at the time.Buxom women. Space exploration. Buxom women with powers and weapons. Science fiction. More buxom women. More science fiction.The two newest machines in the exhibit were made in 2003 and feature "The Simpsons" and "The Lord of the Rings."The 1950s and '60s represented the heyday of the pinball machine, when boys would head to the arcades with change in their pockets and bet with buddies on who could get the highest score.In the '70s, the interest in pinball began to wane until the film "Tommy" brought renewed interest. As the '80s approached, teens turned their attention to video games such as Pac-Man, Asteroids, Centipede and Space Invaders.Whimsical artOn the surface, pinball machines might seem an odd choice for an exhibit, Sharp said. When the idea was first pitched to him, he admits rolling his eyes.David Gilmore, professor emeritus of photography at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, hatched the plan. He grew up poor, with no money to go to the arcades. But at the age of 54, his wife bought him a pinball machine, mostly so that she would have something to do in the garage while he tinkered with his cars. Eleven years later, he has 16 pinball machines."My hope is that people will see pinball art in a different form," said Gilmore, who is credited as co-organizer of the show with Sharp. "It may be whimsical, but it's gorgeous art."One of the main text blocks in the gallery explains the art in a more heady fashion."Just as the most elaborate Italian Renaissance frescoes and altarpieces of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci started with the barest charcoal sketches, so too does the finished work of pinball artists begin with a few notations on a legal pad, a small drawing or a snapshot."John Youssi is considered the industry's most popular pinball artist, and his work is liberally represented at Cedarhurst. In two instances, the exhibition takes the viewer through the process that Youssi uses.His work begins with sketches and is mapped out in graphite on Mylar. Colored pencils and markers are used later to flesh out the look. Airbrushed acrylic and gouache on illustration board provide the finished product, which sits next to the pinball machine that incorporates the paintings into its design. In these two cases, it's Road Work and Medieval Madness, which, according to Gilmore, is the most popular pinball machine.Pinball art, says Sharp, "couldn't be more goofy. But technically it's fantastic. I can't even imagine saying it out loud, but pinball art is beautiful."An Illinois gamePinball began as, and still remains, an Illinois game. The three makers of the games were Chicago-based - Gottlieb, Bally and Williams. Today, the only company making the machines, Stern Pinball, also is located in Chicago. The machines in the exhibit are on loan from private collectors in Illinois, Missouri and Indiana.The pinball machine was derived from bagatelle, an English and French table game popular in the early 1930s. Players pull on a spring-loaded plunger to strike a ball and hope it bounces off a pin and into a hole to generate points.The game of luck became one of skill in 1947 when flippers were added so that the player could control where the ball goes. The dreaded tilt feature also came along, meaning the ball is immediately taken out of play if the table is hit too hard.The games gradually became more sophisticated and difficult to play. In the '80s, the electric mechanical reels, similar to what was found on old gas pumps, were replaced by solid-state electronics, with digital scoreboards and more lights and noises to keep the player's attention.Attention is what Sharp is hoping to grab with this exhibit, officially titled: "Tilt! The Art of Pinball.""This is a bit of a departure for us," Sharp said. "We remain in the traditional arts. Part of the reason for doing this is to attract a larger, broader audience. We're here for everyone."