CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Crispy critters: Tarbell smiles through Struggles

When artist Rob Tarbell moved to Charlottesville a few years ago, he left behind a painful marriage and a job as a full-time college art instructor in South Carolina. He struggled to break into the Charlottesville art scene, even resorting to opening a temporary gallery to showcase his stellar 2004 painting exhibition, "Bird by Bird."

How time— and talent and gumption— change everything. Last year Tarbell not only won a prestigious Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Fellowship, he also exhibited work in 18 regional, national, and international shows. And now he's cracked that Charlottesville keeper of the cutting-edge art flame, Second Street Gallery, with his exhibition of ceramic sculpture, "The Struggles Play Nice."

Throughout his darkest days, Tarbell maintained a wry sense of humor, which is the fuel powering this current body of work. Ivory porcelain animals that began as plush toys sit on pedestals, roam across the floor, and seem suspended in mid-fall on the soft brown walls of the Dové Gallery. With the exception of four once-fluffy heads mounted like hunting trophies on off-white plaques (funny but undeniably creepy), Tarbell carefully composes each beastie's limbs and features in ways that bring them to cartoonish life, provoking smiles and irresistibly tugging on viewers' heartstrings. 

But nothing is what it seems. Hardly living flesh, Tarbell's creations are no longer even furry fakes. What was once soft and cuddly has been burned away to yield prickly, breakable objects masquerading as emotive animals. The artist, tongue firmly planted in cheek, plays with deception and disguise, casting (literally) the rabbit— a traditional trickster in many cultures— as his main character. Pieces that initially appear to be cute little pigs, elephants, or gorillas, upon closer inspection reveal tell-tale long ears hanging down their backs from behind tied-on masks. Two lumbering bears with small bunnies hopelessly strapped to their snouts are particularly hilarious.

Tarbell is effective at pushing viewers' childhood buttons. Here and there he uses paint the color of silly putty or duckling yellow to highlight features like the insides of rabbit ears. Plus his pieces' matted fur, resulting from the porcelain dip, inevitably recalls favorite stuffed friends we all accidentally left outside in the rain (don't tell me you didn't cry).

"The Struggles Play Nice" is fun and funny, but its underlying strength is Tarbell's ability to tap into our sense of fragile vulnerability as we all try to fake it ‘til we make it.

Rob Tarbell's exhibition, "The Struggles Play Nice," is on view through March 1 at Second Street Gallery. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.