The Dangers and Pleasures of Toys

by Phil Harris

Toying with Reality:
Ten Interpretations
Houston Center for Photography
April 6-May 21, 2001
It doesn't take a degree in rocket science or years of high-powered research to tell you that childhood, as a proposition, looks increasingly precarious. Just take a quick trip to the nearest Toys R Us or turn on your television. There it is, in lurid, vivid color: children are the sub­jects of a massive cultural experiment, which seems to be designed to discover the earliest age they can be transformed into gravel-voiced, cynical toughs or manipulative, knowing, femme fatales. Add to this the jacked-up pitching of ever more violent, sexualized consum­erism and the idea of the subspecies "child" seems headed the way of the sandlot baseball game and the tea party with stuffed animals. Toys and games aren't fun if they don't interact electron­ically, and heaven help the adult that contemplates buying the off-brand.

All this is a far cry from times past. At one time, it was socially acceptable not only for children but adults as well to play with toys. The novelist, critic and short story writer G.K. Chesterton was known as a formidably productive, upright curmudgeon, an exemplar of Victorian virtues. His favorite form of recreation, known only to his few inti­mates, was to lock himself in a room at his country house, and play for hours with a set of cardboard figures on a miniature proscenium stage. He would then take a brisk walk, sit down at his desk, and write for the rest of the day. He saw no contradiction between his unstructured play and his ferocious work ethic. To Chesterton, both were indispensable pieces of his identity.
All this apparently begs a question: what happens when contemporary adults move into the house and start playing with the toys that the kids have discarded? Houston Center for Photog­raphy's exhibition, Toying With Reality: 10 Interpretationswalks us through the playrooms of ten grown-up photogra­phers who haven't quit playing with toys. They range from well-known photog­raphers to emerging artists of various stripes and inclinations, from across the US. The exhibition was curated by Jean Caslin and Jacinda Russell.

There are a number of common threads: the use of miniature figures and forms to create a claustrophobic space with a minimal plane of focus; a sense of narrative, often used to tell stories of disaster or dismay; and a highly personal invitation to scrutinize details ordinarily reserved for the realm of the magnifying glass. All this adds up to an often disturbing cocktail: a very adult meditation on where adults come from and what we make of the world when we get a hold of it. The work falls into several camps. Roger Young, Mae Benson and Christopher Coppola have all created variations on chamber of horrors or late-night "House of Wax" imagery. There are enough nightmare references to execution, evisceration, cannibalism and the dungeon to satisfy even the most morbid horror movie aficionado. Although Benson's work is more omi­nously abstract and fluid, Coppola's more domestic and Young's leans more to enigmatic symbolism, they share a need to confront deterioration, decay and demise.

On a more cheerful note, Arthur Tress, Larry Gianettino and Lori Nix work with vivid color to blend the strange, the wonderful and the absurd. Gianettino's large-scale macroscopic close-ups of tiny toy animal heads and faces are the first thing visitors sees when they walk into the gallery. By turns out­rageous and thought-provoking, and sometimes both at once, Gianettino's images are an example of the power of the photograph to appall and fascinate us by forcing attention to be paid to the mundane detail. Nix stages faux midwest -ern disasters such as a train derailment, a blimp colliding with powerlines, a jet­liner headed for a water tower. Her color palette and her use of scale models and stagey sets are reminiscent of Technicolor Hitchcock. One can easily see scenes full of rear projection and blonde actresses running from disaster with delicately fur­rowed brows and pouty, perfectly made-up lips. Arthur Tress has been through many permutations as a photographer over the years, and his Fishtank Sonata series is a wonderful continuation of the still life work he began with The Teapot Opera. Tress has chosen to schlep a Victo­rian fishtank around upstate New York, filling it with complex combinations of thrift-storiana to illustrate various auto­biographical incidents. The resulting semi-submerged mythological imagery is both nostalgic and hilarious and, on occasion, superlatively beautiful.

Two of the artists on display have looked to the history of arts and letters for their inspiration. Though David Levinthal is better known than Patrick Phipps, Phipps' work comes off here as more original. Levinthal, known for his use of out-of-focus miniature renditions of historical events and American myths and stereotypes, as well as a series of straight photographs of stereotypical "blackface" ceramic ware from the pre-civil rights era ioth century, has chosen to illustrateUncle Tom's Cabin. By com­bining cast-metal miniatures with the photogravure process, Levinthal has created a handsome set of "stills" from key scenes in the book. But they have the stylized look of Kabuki theater that comes with an excess of reverence — not a characteristic that one usually associates with this artist. Patrick Phipps, on the other hand, cannot be accused of an overabundance of deference to art history. His interpretations of Goya's Third of May, 1808, and Delacroix'sLiber­ty Leading the People, constructed out of Legos, are a delightful antidote to the typical drowsiness of art-historical refer­ences in contemporary work. The bright colors and fixed smiles of the Lego figures as they face death are so chockfull of manufactured cheer that the unwary viewer may want to wear sun­glasses to cut down on the glaring irony.

The most thoughtful work in the show comes from Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, well-known for her outdoor pinhole tableaus of ancient monuments and enigmatic moments and newcomer Eva Skold Westerlind. As a counterpoint to most of the rest of the exhibition, Thorne-Thomsen and Westerlind both employ black and white to emphasize the dreamlike, mystical qualities of their pinhole imagery. But while Thorne-Thomsen constructs her scenes in ambiguous (mental, physical andmetaphysical) outdoor vistas, Westerlind works in a more personal, claustrophobic setting. Using a lone, androgynous figure (whose face is always hidden from us), Westerlind directs her own small movie, snapping stills that draw from the silent eloquence of Jacques Tati, Keaton and Chaplin. Her figure is a stand-in, an understudy for the viewer in a very bum­bling, awkward, human kind of way. We look over its shoulder as the small figure balances on a tightrope, only to fall into a pitcher headfirst or embrace a pear, then peeks around a screen to steal a glance at a headless, armless nude marble statue.

Our identification with a small, jointed wooden toy seems to hint at the value of the kind of unstructured play for which our world has gradually lost its taste.Spending time with Toying With Reality may be just the ticket to start us on the road back to the dangers and pleasures of childhood games and toys. In the process, we may find that the precarious state of present-day childhood is our own.

PHIL HARRIS IS A PHOTOGRAPHER AND WRITER IN PORTLAND, OREGON.

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