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No, It’s Not a Real Wii™ Game, It’s John Karel Making Macaroni and Cheese


I have been a fan of John Karel’s work ever since I met him in 2007. His animations, drawings, and paintings are literally and metaphorically reflections of him, his friends, and the vloggs/vloggers (video blogs/bloggers) he finds on the internet. John infuses his artwork with horizontal-lipped humor and a fantastic sense of color and drawing. Clearly he has grown up “studying” Sunday comics. What I find most interesting is how John’s artwork pulls you aside and whispers a critical gesture at avatar culture, that exhibitionist style of interacting with the world that was solely bred of the internet. In his show Wii™ Macaroni and Cheese, which is up until the end of September at The Philadelphia Institute For Advanced Study, John has created a 3D animation of a fake Wii™ game. You watch John’s avatar attempt to cook Macaroni and Cheese™ and here’s a spoiler alert: he loses.

John Karel's Wii™ avatar
John Karel’s Wii™ avatar

John Karel, on the Rocky steps of the PMA during his lunch break
John Karel, on the Rocky steps of the PMA during his lunch break

In the animation which he made using the open source 3D animation software Blender, John’s avatar scoots around a Wii™-ified version of his own South Philadelphia row home kitchen. As he fills the pot with water and lights the stove with his round, fingerless Wii™ hands, the score in the upper left-hand corner of the screen spins higher. Then you and John wait for about five minutes for the water to boil. John’s avatar restlessly bobs around, kicks at the Wii™ linoleum, and even goes off screen for awhile. You wait too. It’s drudgery at its best. Soon a pop-up box congratulates us on the successfully boiled water. It is now time for “Part II: Cooking noodles.” John’s interpretation of a misinformed translation reminded me of the occasional Japanese-English translation error my brothers and I would encounter on the original Nintendo.

"A Winner is You" a congratulatory message from the creators of Pro Wrestling (NES system, 1986)
“A Winner is You” a congratulatory message from the creators of Pro Wrestling (NES system, 1986)

The overall feeling of the animation is rather sad. It’s comparable to watching an inexperienced gamer play Wii™ Tennis by himself: both lonely and pathetic. A very existential piece. You can watch Wii™ Macaroni and Cheese here.

John’s show also includes avatar portraits (including a portrait of this article’s author) painted brightly in acrylic on both sides of sheets of plexiglass. They remind me of Northern European Renaissance portraits, which is not surprising considering that John has worked a part-time job in Gallery Maintenance (artwork dusting) at the PMA for over two years. Some of the avatars exude austere serenity against their colorfully pixelated backgrounds.

<em>Portrait of a Man Praying</em> by Ludovico Portinari. Photo fromt he Philadelphia Museum of Art website.
Portrait of a Man Praying by Ludovico Portinari. Photo from the Philadelphia Museum of Art website.
A portrait of Gavin Riley, by John Karel
A portrait of Gavin Riley, by John Karel
<em>A Donor Praying</em> by Jan Provost. Photo from the Philadelphia Museum of Art website
A Donor Praying by Jan Provost. Photo from the Philadelphia Museum of Art website
richard davis
A portrait of Richard Davis, by John Karel

Another challenge/joy for John was to come up with a show title. He and a friend schemed show names to rival those unfortunately generic show titles at cultural institutions in Philadelphia (ahem, Cezanne and Beyond). Some were as follows: “John Karel: Himself.” “John Karel: Color as Structure” “John Karel: Tradition and Innovation” and “John Karel: Portrait of a Man.” Ultimately he settled on the Macaroni and Cheese title, he tells me with a straight face, but I know there’s something wry boiling underneath.

Wii™ Macaroni and Cheese has a closing reception on Saturday, October 2nd at the Philadelphia Institute For Advanced Study (PIFAS) 1712 N. 2nd St. 8:00 PM. Otherwise you can see the work by appointment (717) 413-6951 I will be delivering a lecture in conjunction with the exhibit and this article about user creativity (including a discussion of avatars) in The Sims 3™ on Wednesday, September 30 at 9:00 pm.