Seriously off-beat and playful

At a Glance

It's hard to mistake Newport News artist Wade Mickley's playful, often serpentine-shaped creations for anything else you may have seen hanging on the wall in a Hampton Roads gallery or art museum.

They're just too whimsical — and too obsessed with design, material and the details of fabrication — to be made by anybody else but the off-beat NASA Langley graphic artist who began attracting attention here after conjuring up an award-winning piece for the Virginia Artists Juried Exhibition 3 years ago.

Titled "Extended Play," that fanciful concoction of found parts featured a short stack of old black vinyl 45-rpm records that he cut into half-circles, etched with various kinds of scaly patterns and then reassembled to form the looping body of an imaginary serpent. Old sheet-metal fittings and inscribed pieces of weathered driftwood helped make this fanciful creature complete, endowing it with a grimacing, totemlike face and a joyfully menacing tail.

Plexiglass clouds added still more exuberance and fun, plucking Mickley's snake from the pedestrian bounds of Earth and elevating it into a flying mythological marvel. And no one who got the joke could fail to smile when he dubbed this demonstration of ingenious improvisation and self-amusement with an apt, comically loaded title.

No wonder that Mickley walked off with the Mayor's Award when the judging for the exhibit was over. And no wonder that — after showing off a similarly artful combination of unpredictable inventiveness at the New Waves juried exhibit in Virginia Beach last year — he was asked to return for his current solo show in the community gallery at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.

"Assemblage is a very difficult medium — and I haven't seen anybody locally doing it as well as Wade," MOCA curator Heather Hakimzadeh says.

"When you see one of his pieces, you know it's his."

Made up of about a dozen works from the past three or four years, "Wade Mickley: Terribly Wonderful" showcases several of his record-based creations, including the exhibit's signature piece from 2011.

As with many of his other objects, the influences of popular culture, folk art and primitive art collide here in clever and unforeseen ways, sweeping references to comics, cartoons and even lunar astronomy up in their wake as they splash around in Mickley's imagination.

What results is a visually engaging dual portrait in which two serpentine beasts curl together and intertwine, then respond to one another in a funny and provocative yet largely unarticulated fashion.

Comic-book beads of sweat shoot out from one of the heads, for example, forming a halo of worry and exasperation that echoes the creature's gap-toothed grimace. Tightly shut eyes and clenched lips convey the stifled storm of emotions going on within its companion's head, which is surrounded by a swirling ring of brooding clouds.

Playing out across the feet of this provocative duo is a series of 6 spheres illustrating the changing phases of the moon — and perhaps of their relationship. Then there are the empty speech and scream balloons that move across up the green fabric background behind them, inviting viewers to fill in the blanks with their own explanation of what's going on between Mickley's bickering creations.

"His work is always very humorous," Hakimzadeh says. "But it's also very serious."

Several of Mickley's recent efforts have the same look, combining the features of cartoon characters with the long necks and expressive faces of brightly painted carnival knock-down dolls.

But these simpler, sparer pieces sacrifice some of the manic complexity and inventiveness found in past works to focus more closely on the creatures' portraits.

The 2-dimensional renderings on view here provide a little less to look at and savor, too. But that doesn't make them much less engaging or zany.

With its crazy single eye and three long arms bristling with octupuslike suckers, don't miss "This is Brought to You by the Letter 'M,'" in particular.

This is one character from the alphabet with a real life of its own — and it goes far beyond most other attempts to re-animate what were once boisterous pictures rather than abstract ciphers.

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Want to go?

"Wade Mickley: Terribly Wonderful"

Where: Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, 2500 Parks Ave., Virginia Beach

When: Through Aug. 18

Cost: $7.70 adults, $5.50 students, free for children 4 and under

Info: 757-425-0000;

Online: Go to to see a gallery of Mickley's work.

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