Smiley faces invite new POVs on current events

Clintonville painter's work invokes grins, then shudders

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Clintonville artist Tom Baillieul's "Heaven is a Happy Place" substitutes a suicide bomber's face with the iconic smiley face.

Ad executive Harvey R. Ball, who died April 14, 2001, was "the strongest claimant to having invented the smiley face, that 100-watt yellow grin adorning tote bags, letters (and) car bumpers," according to his obituary in The New York Times.

Local artist Tom Baillieul may well be the strongest claimant to the most ironic uses for the iconic image.

The Clintonville resident's latest exhibition, which runs Friday, Aug. 29, through Sept. 29 at CS Gallery, 66 Parsons Ave., is titled "Put on a Happy Face." In the nine paintings and two collages, the smiley face takes the place of the visages of, among others, a terrorist wearing a suicide vest, a couple holding hands while lounging in adjacent bathtubs, a woman learning to use a prosthetic leg and an elderly couple in a nursing home.

"I want to create narratives about issues of importance in our 21st-century world," Baillieul said in a statement announcing the exhibit. "For this series, I sought to build ambiguity into my pieces. Viewers get to complete each story based on their own lives and experiences."

In an interview last week, Baillieul said the series grew out of a painting he completed last year following the April 24 collapse of a garment factory in the capital of Bangladesh that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 workers and injured 2,500 more.

The tragedy moved Baillieul to create a painting set in a "sweatshop somewhere in the world," with women bent over sewing machines, their faces covered by the smiley-face image. It was titled Happy to Be Here, because in some countries, making a living wage, even working at such drudgery, might be a source of happiness, Baillieul said, while elsewhere it would be assumed they were exploited victims.

Happy to Be Here was featured in several juried shows, Baillieul said -- "which made me feel good that someone else was getting the point," he added.

"The smiley face has been used as a symbol of joy, friendship and good times since the 1960s, although there are indications that it may have appeared well before then," Baillieul wrote in his announcement. "More recently, it's been used to promote low-priced consumer goods imported from overseas.

"In this exhibition, the friendly symbol takes on new meanings."

"I was intrigued by this whimsical satire," CS Gallery owner Daniel Colvin said in the announcement. "Tom has taken a pop icon of happiness from the past and superimposed it onto current-event situations that are anything but harmonious and joyful."

"People start off chuckling when they first encounter one of the paintings; that's the power of the smiley face," the artist said in his statement. "Then they start to get creeped out as they look more closely at the scene and realized what's involved. All of a sudden, the world is a much more complex place, and issues we thought were clear take on a new meaning."

An opening reception for the show will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 12 at the gallery.