Playing Games: Chance, Skill, and Abstraction
Classic games are gateways to the past. George Widener’s recent work transports us to an unfamiliar future where history is condensed into dates and numerical patterns. “Playing Games: Chance, Skill, and Abstraction” is curated around this convergence of tradition and innovation, presenting vintage American gameboards and carnival games (dating between the late 19th and the mid 20th century) in dialogue with Widener’s works depicting hyper-complex games—meant to be played by enhanced humans or intelligent machines when advanced non-biological intelligence, or “Singularity,” becomes a reality. Isolated from their initial context and purpose, the early examples of carnival games and handmade gameboards overlap with (and in many cases precede) modern art, particularly works of geometric abstraction. This exhibition highlights the inventiveness of countless anonymous artists who produced functional games that are also readymade works of art, displaying them as counterparts to Widener’s “Magic Square” and “Magic Circle” series.
Modern board games developed as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the middle class, but they have many predecessors going back to ancient times—with dice being at the core of humanity’s oldest games. The tradition of American board games dates back to the first quarter of the 19th century, when most pieces were homemade and not subject to strict designs, save for the basic structure of the game. “Playing Games” includes examples of Parcheesi boards, identifiable through their “cross and circle” arrangement—four nests (or starting points) and a “home” center or nucleus—which varies from one case to the next in the same way that late 19th century strip quilts bend and reinterpret inherited templates. Also included are games of Checkers (or “Draughts”) and Halma; austere 8” x 8” and 16” x 16” grids of squares in alternating colors—the latter characterized by four “camps” of dotted squares clustered in the corners—as well as the star-shaped “Chinese Checkers” (invented in Germany as a variation on Halma), bean bag toss and ring toss games, and two wheels of fortune that were originally funfair attractions.
The flat architecture of geometric shapes on a non-perspectival space, the focus on form, color, and spatial relationships on all these games echo modernism’s pull toward abstraction and minimalism. The materiality of their surfaces—the scratching, peeling, craquelure, and shrinkage; the interaction between the sublayer and the pictorial layer (which can only take place in time)—is the patina of authenticity, witness of the object’s former life. Widener’s futuristic “game” works, on the other hand, thrust us to a strange new world where people and smart technologies will have extraordinary memory and calculation abilities through genetic and technical advancements: “Machines will become a new species with higher creative intelligence and humans will be enhanced with skills that seem implausible today,” explains the artist.
Even as a child, Widener would transform the numbers around him (a license plate, a house number) into dates. This evolved into an intense fascination with calendars, historical events, numerical systems, and the ebb and flow time—heightened, or perhaps caused, by Asperger’s and the innate lighting calculation, memory, and drawing skills that came with it. As part of his ambitious oeuvre, the artist has been crossbreeding calendrical dates with magic squares and other mathematical systems for more than two decades. Magic squares are grids of integers where all rows and columns add up to an identical sum. Widener used this model to create a “magic time square,” fitting dates into the square’s numbers—and making those dates add up to an identical sum instead. The next task was to create dates that not only resulted in an identical overall figure, but that revealed a common theme. Much in the same way as traditional board games, the geometric framework is purely self-referential, but in Widener’s case it can be assigned shifting meanings and values. “For example, I might fit natural disasters … and find hurricanes that not only fit the integers but also occurred on Fridays,” he says. “This idea has appeared in my past work in various ways: I created stacks, sequences, and progressions of dates using similarities and differences. The resulting ‘Magic Circles’ series allows the user to ‘program’ it; to choose a specific theme and then fit the provided days of the week with appropriate dates. When artificial intelligence occurs, these ‘crossdate’ or ‘crosstime’ puzzles will become feasible games and then hopefully they’ll be awakened.”
Games fall into two categories, those that demand strategy and skill and those that function as physical manifestations chance. At the core of this is an essential dichotomy: owning one’s own destiny or being at the mercy of forces beyond control; the blind and fickle wheel of fortune on one end and on the other Widener’s intricately detailed works, which also happen to function as “games,” or as a means of containing chaos and giving shape to that which would seem to have none.