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Justin Price invites you into a world of comic playfulness

Justin Price: This Side Up

Through Dec. 10 in MICA's Bunting Center's Student Gallery

Some of us like to hope

that the gods—or spirit folk or woodland creatures or aliens or whatever you choose to believe in—create a special place in the afterlife for artists willing to be completely ridiculous. Fools aren’t just nice tonics to the seriousness of, well, everything these days. Sometime they offer enough of a peek behind conventional normality that they take you somewhere else. When that conventional normality is rooted in reason, sometimes that somewhere-else fools can take you is as necessary as fresh air.

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Take Maryland Institute College of Art ceramics undergraduate Justin Price. He might not appreciate this statement, but the young man is absolutely ridiculous. Only a fool would dream up the items he’s constructed, primarily out of ceramic and glaze, in his

This Side Up

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solo show in the intimate student gallery space in the Pinkard Gallery. There are only seven objects on display, and they’re entirely goofy. Perhaps he won’t mind being called ridiculous: His blog URL is

, and the May 18, 2010, entry is the merriam-webster.com definition of “joke.”

For

This Side Up

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, Price has created seven inventions/contraptions—tools, almost—designed to, well, accomplish some task. Only that task is a little pointless, or simple, or unnecessary, or inaccurate, or something you would never really think you’d have the need for. There’s “The Bullet Proof Hat,” which is a large magnet attached to straps for wearing on the head. There’s “The Plung-o-Matic,” a somehow motorized bathroom plunger. There’s “The Precision Slicer,” which is an ax attached to a spring-loaded slab of wood. There’s “The Man-Trap,” which is your average everyday bear trap with a cheeseburger used as bait. Each one is ceramic and glaze with, Price says via e-mail, a little epoxy and acrylic paint. There’s “The Thinking Cap,” a kitchen colander modified with various doodads and doohickeys that is straight-up Louis Tully Keymaster headgear. And they’re rendered to be realistic and yet they remain entirely unbelievable. Price’s works are the sort of creations you’d imagine being dreamed up by Wile E. Coyote and Marcel Duchamp after a particularly taxing chess match.

This real/not real effect runs through the entire installation. Each object sits atop an old-fashioned wood packing crate, presumably what was used to ship the inventions to the gallery from the manufacturer. Packaging straw is strewn about the floor around each box. Mounted on the wall behind each object is an explanation of the object, rendered to look like blueprints. For “The Plung-o-Matic,” whose name alone conjures memories of

Saturday Night Live

’s pointlessly inspired “Bass-o-Matic,” the accompanying instructions demonstrate how to use device: inserting it vertically into a toilet, making an up and down motion, and removing an object. The instructions also suggest an alternate use: applying “The Plung-o-Matic” directly to the face, apparently to dislodge anything in the sinus or digestive tract.

Why would somebody do that? Why would somebody even dream up such a device? You might as well ask why people concoct any number of objects that actually exist for which people pay real money. Cable, DirecTV, et al. have entire channels dedicated to selling objects of no use or importance to people. Which reality is most insane: Price’s, where a wooden mallet with rockets mounted to its side is called “The Auto Hammer,” or ours, where you can buy a “handpainted buttercup pig figurine” for $34.50 plus shipping and handling from qvc.com?

The real/not real divide is what makes this installation and Price’s works so genuinely funny. Strolling through it—it takes all of five minutes—the effect is sort of like the first time you saw

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

: You know the animations don’t exist in the same reality as the live-action actors, and yet there they are, talking to each other and interacting as if they do. Price’s creations, similarly, are completely ludicrous. There’s no reason why you’d need a pair of “The Rocket Skates”—old-fashioned platform roller skates with bars of TNT attached to the sides—but it’s rather entertaining to consider a world in which they do exist.

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