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Imaginary games, real art

To Sarah Petite, games aren’t just entertainment – they’re art.

In her new exhibition at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre, Game Theory, Petite has taken familiar board games – checkers, chess, backgammon – and turned them into striking pieces that seem drawn from the fevered mind of an insane mathematician.

Painted on wood with encaustic (hot wax) paint, the works in Game Theory take the motifs & geometric shapes of board games and radically deconstruct them, using vivid colours and rough-hewn strokes to focus on the clash between order and imagination. Feeling like a collection of century-old relics pulled out of a grandparent’s attic, the exhibit contains everything from slabs of wood that resemble cave paintings to pieces that have a 3D isometric effect like Q-Bert on acid.

Fredericton-based Petite says that the inspiration for the show came from her lifelong love of board games and abstract expressionism, and her desire to integrate the two.

“If I look back in my journals I’ll see the phrase ‘imaginary games’ popping up,” she said.

“When you’re working on an abstract painting, you’re playing chess against yourself. Every time there’s a move in the game, it realigns things. It makes things more complicated, and you try to work towards this balanced image of the final painting. So the games and the abstract painting and the encaustic all finally came together.”

Petite has been using encaustic for 25 years of her 30-year career. A tricky medium to handle which requires a complex heating rig to keep liquefied, she claims that encaustic gives a unique effect that no other paint can.

“The fellows in New York, the abstract expressionists, experimented with it,” Petite explained.

“You can do all kind of things like paint on a thick layer, dig into it, fill it with another color, take a scraper and scrape it off. There’s all kinds of variations on that particular technique.”

While the title of the exhibition might make you think otherwise, Petit claims that she doesn’t actually understand the concept of mathematical game theory.

“I have to confess it’s probably just a nod, because I don’t have the brainpower to do that,” she said, laughing. Petite went on to say that while the finer details of math might elude her, she did integrate some notable aspects of game theory into her show, such as the famous prisoner’s dilemma.

Ultimately for Petite, the appeal lies in the interplay between knowledge and artistic interpretation.

“I see artists as kind of amateur experts. You read about something, it fascinates you, you distill it down and it comes out in your art. So it’s a kind of communication of your wonder and fascination.”

Petite said that while she’s been working on Game Theory for at least three years, she still has more pieces waiting to surface.

“I’m still thinking on the next thing I want to do. I’m thinking about fractals . . . I might be getting in too deep.”

Game Theory, at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre’s Glencross Gallery, runs until April 14, 2014.

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