Game Boards at Abcedarian Gallery

Alicia Bailey, proprietor of Abcedarian Gallery in Denver, has some of my prints from the 1990s showing in her secret room of treasures. There are a few recent monotypes from the show at Ironton, but the focus of this mini-exhibition is a series of etchings based on historic game boards. When I look at these older etchings, I notice how much they resemble the painted animations I’ve done in recent years (the “Unsecret Block” and the canvas animations that were shown at Ironton), with broad shapes compiled from little compartments, with much of the energy coming from “local” gesture and touch, rather than from blunt graphic impact. In short, you have to have to actually pause and look closely, otherwise it’s hardly worth your while. By this time (mid 90s), I’d already been painting on 16mm film for several years, so I was at home with this kind of “macro” aesthetic.

The background of these game boards is interesting to me, and perhaps to you, dear reader. Here are some relatively brief descriptions, taken from the text on the wall at Abcedarian:

The Royal & Most Pleasant Game of the Goose

The Game of the Goose dates back to at least the 1500s, and this etching is related to a version that was printed in England around 1725. Played with dice, this is considered the prototype of all “race” games, and a variety of terrors, dangers, and opportunities lurk on the way to the central portal. Some of these, like Death, ended the game entirely for the unfortunate player. This was a drinking and gambling game, and if one landed on the Ale House, for instance, one would be obliged to add money to the pot, drink, and miss one’s turn. Falling in The Well could also cause wet, frustrating delays. On the other hand, landing on a Goose would double the number one rolled, allowing one to swiftly proceed toward victory and profit. Original impressions of this early British printing are exceptionally rare, the late 20th century Waldemar variant even more so. It is one artifact of Waldemar’s continuing study of how humans spend their time. The “Winnie the Pooh” game is a modern variant.

The Game of Snakes & Ladders

The Game of Snakes and Ladders is derived from an Indian game of morality and consequences called Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam (The Ladder to Salvation). One ascends through the numbered squares, and when a player lands on a square that represents a virtuous act or principle, a ladder brings the traveler instantly to a higher level on the board. On the other hand, when one lands on a snake-head square, one is eaten, digested, and deposited lower down on the board through the snake’s anus. The player is amusingly reminded of the threat and lure of reward and punishment. The game migrated from Colonial India to England and beyond, and it is, of course, the precursor to the charming and vapid “Chutes & Ladders,” familiar even now to those of us who grew up in the 20th century.

The Game of the Fox & Geese

The Game of Fox and Geese, or Halatfl, dates back to at least about 1300 AD in Scandinavia, and it’s mentioned in the Grettis Saga. In one common version, the Fox, is assailed by a mob of 13 bloodthirsty geese. If the Fox can reach the edge of the board alive, (s)he wins.  The two players have entirely different agendas. Halatafl filled the blank hours at sea as Vikings set out to pillage Europe, then amused them through the long dark winters back home, as they shivered in smoky rooms with their loot.

Alicia is one of the foremost dealers in one-of-a-kind or small edition artists books, and even if you don’t like my work, you’re sure to find something of interest in the secret annexe in which my works reside. It’s not that secret, really. Walk into the gallery, and if the door to the secret club isn’t open, just open it, or ask someone to. From that moment on, you’re a member.

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