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Holly Mackay

Holly Mackay


Hugh Margerum Reinvents Tic-tac-toe

Reinventing the Game … for Artists


TIC-TAC-TOE: Tic-tac-toe may not get the respect of chess, or even checkers, but it’s still one of the most widely played and important simple games in the world. It’s something that virtually every child encounters at some point — usually quite early in life — and it often leaves a strong impression, especially when accompanied by some basic lessons in turn-taking, following rules, and anticipating outcomes. On Thursday, June 7, artist Hugh Margerum will take over the smaller side gallery at The Project Fine Art Gallery (740 State St., Ste. 1) for the month with a show of colorful, framed variations on tic-tac-toe that he has been creating for the past few months. Every iteration of the familiar 3x3 grid reflects an encounter between Margerum and another Santa Barbaran, typically although not exclusively drawn from the community of visual artists.

This version of the game, which I played with Margerum at The French Press just last week, involves using materials from his handy kit of pens, markers, brushes, razors, and glue to decorate each individual square with more or less artistic versions of the traditional Xs and Os. Participants whose matches with Margerum will be on display include, among about 40 others, familiar art-world figures like Keith Puccinelli, Susan Tibbles, Holly Mackay, Dane Goodman, and Rafael Perea de la Cabada. Despite the emphasis on artists, the range is nevertheless wider than that, and even Mayor Helene Schneider can be found in the mix, along with 14-year-old Luisa Cameron, and competitive sailor George Witter.

Margerum opens the game by drawing the grid in a square sketchbook and then asking his partner to pick either X or O, and whether to go first or not. It turns out that drawing, painting, or collaging into these boxes actually upends the ordinary expectations associated with tic-tac-toe, turning those features of the game that are commonly understood as limitations into distinct aesthetic strengths. For instance, take the tendency of two evenly matched players to pursue the game to the point of a draw, or what is commonly called a “cat’s game.” While this may not please those who are looking for a decisive moment of victory or defeat, from an artistic point of view, it guarantees that in most instances the entire board will be filled with art, something that Margerum sees as part of his goal. “Oh, yes,” he told me when I pointed this out. “In fact, when the game doesn’t end with all the squares filled, I typically ask the person I’m playing to keep drawing until we have filled all the boxes. The pieces look better that way.”

Another noticeable feature of this hybrid of art and pastime is the degree to which it reveals both the personalities of those involved and the physical context in which it’s played. Participants frequently refer to or incorporate materials that crop up in the surrounding environment, as when the wrappers of a few Hershey’s Kisses became a faux-silver leaf element in one design, or the yellow from a nearby curb triggered a sympathetic response and caused me to pick up a brush and daub in a bright yellow pseudo-impressionist O.

As one would expect, some of the most striking examples of the game emerged from the fervid imaginations of our local legends. Puccinelli’s visual puns pack a Poochy punch, and Dug Uyesaka’s sculptural first move was already outside the box. But there’s plenty of excitement in every board, as this lovely and charming experiment strikes a perfect balance between the ordinary and the exceptional, and between structure and improvisation. To see the show, go to the Project, and to learn more about Margerum’s art, visit hughmargerum.com.

PING-PONG, TOO: No account of Margerum’s current activities would be complete without mentioning the fact that he originated the plan for a public Ping-Pong table in the park outside the main library. For more information about this interesting and imaginative suggestion, visit publicpingpongsantabarbara.com.

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