Mary Snowden’s Picnic by the Seashore, 2006

How much do you remember of your impressions of the world when you were a child?  Was your childhood one of innocence and fun, or was it full of mysteries, scary stuff, temptations and prohibitions because you were small?  The Exhibition, A Child’s World at the Triton Museum of Art, explores these and many more possibilities through the work of a number of adult artists who recall their own childhood, evoke childhood, express themselves with a veneer of childlike creations, satire the political world with reminders of corruption cloaked in fake innocence, and sometimes depict childhood as anything but innocent.  The exhibition is rich with insight, witty observations and a fascinating array of approaches in terms of craft.

Mary Snowden blends a wide range of drawing styles, many borrowed from cartoons such as Little Orphan Annie and illustrations from Mother Goose and children’s textbooks.  She creates deliberate contrasts between the imaginary and the real, and plays with old-fashioned notions of what captures a child’s fancy vs. contemporary childhood realities.  Little Orphan Annie goes to the wharf for a picnic, where she spreads out a marvelous selection of homemade delicacies for her friends: the frog who sings, the pig who drums, and other animals who dance and entertain themselves.  They may be oblivious to the history of picnics at an actual beach or on the grass in the once green world.  They appear immensely happy amidst what they have: a graffiti adorned tug boat and dry-docked skiff beside them, airliners passing overhead and container cargo being unloaded nearby.  The viewer may be old enough to recall that Little Orphan Annie was frequently reduced to dire straights in life and always remained the optimist.

The surfaces of Snowden’s large drawings on heavy rag paper are another rewarding viewing experience.  Some of the imagery, with its pigment sunk into the fibers of the paper, could be mechanically reproduced or carefully painted with expertly mixed washes.  Other lines and shapes sit up on the surface with glittery surfaces or matt colors that contrast each drawn element subtly with its neighbor.  Some lines look like colored pencil.  Others glow with the halo of a second color around them.  Snowden’s pallet is restrained, in shades and tints that create the slightly faded look of a page in an aged childhood reader.

Enrique Chagoya’s  codex/comic strip The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals (detail)

Enrique Chagoya also employs contrasting drawing styles in his sharply satirical commentary on The Conquest, colonialism, religion, the global village, American imperialism and popular culture. Chagoya may be best known for his large-scale paintings of Mickey Mouse as the foolish front man for the international machinations of the USA. One of these works is indeed included in the show, cynically poised as part of a child’s world, with the inclusion of Mickey. But, The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals, Chagoya’s fold-out codex, is a crazy comic strip of appropriated imagery, mostly from popular media, with a fair application of photoshopping.  The right to left reading document is worth a patient close-up inspection for all the clever juxtapositions of raucous irreverence involving Christ, the Buddha, and American national heroes George Washington and Honest Abe who are printing what appear to be counterfeit documents.  In other events piglet sexpots dance on the bed wearing bikini panties and multiple bras to cover their multiple teats.  The silliness goes on through multiple panels, touching on Mexican popular heroes and other historical and popular international figures in recognizable national dress, all in pretty much inscrutable interactions.  I could not find a single theme that dominated nor made a lot of sense and perhaps that was one of the things most appealing about this etched document — it is beautifully printed and colored, appearing so serious – yet it is pure fun, the least presumptuous of statements.  It’s a world gone wild and that is what it’s all about.

Walter Robinson’s Recovery, 2007, and Pink Ganesha, 2006 (foreground)

Like Chagoya, Walter Robinson is, unafraid to take on Walt Disney. He sculpts his glass-like surfaces out of Styrofoam, metal, epoxy and plaster.  His trio of slick small bright pink sculptures includes Recovery, with Minnie and Mickey Mouse wearing only shoes and gloves in pinks from flesh to bubble gum colors, floating on a scalloped bright pink cloud.  Minnie bends over to hoist up a collapsed Mickey revealing her pendulous mammaries and a full view of her well-detailed bottom.  Slag (Pink Ganesha) is a clumsy, well-worn, seated pink “stuffed” elephant with six legs and one clouded white eye in the center of his forehead.  In Buddhism, Ganesh is the intellect that exercises restraint over his companion, the ego-centered mouse called the Mooshak.  He is also the Lord of new Beginnings and associated with the first chakra.

Kathryn Spence continues to develop her semi-tragic series of figures that evoke the stuffed animals of childhood.  Sculpted outwards with layer upon layer of pieces of cloth and discarded items of clothing, they begin to assume aspects of a bag lady, sagging, wearing all her clothes at once. At the same time they remind us of a toy that has been tossed and torn, repaired ineptly, worn out and ruptured again with the stuffing coming out.  They are sad and there is something about the oversized or diminutive scale of her works that makes them out of place. The small rabbit figures in this show also carry the suggestion of having been loved and perhaps dressed by an idiosyncratic child that layered up all their textures and patterns with care but no concern for fashion. Their postures are anthropomorphic and we cannot escape pitying them.  Of the works in this show, her small Mud Bears, tattered and covered in mud with muddy threads trailing around them seem the most enigmatic.  On a gut level they feel a bit like the chocolate Easter Bunny we want to bite into, but on the intellectual level, it is a beat up toy that has suffered the final indignity — to be drowned in mud.

In quite a shift, Heidi Zumbrun photographs and enlarges the child’s ripped toy as a document with little commentary.  The scale of these figures floating, groundless, still creates a sort of tragic sensibility.  There is a lot to be said for the purely formal figure/ground relationship of her curious solitary toys.

Pueri Arma (Child’s Gun) by Lucy Puls

Lucy Puls, captures artifacts of childhood play in resin — towers of resin filled with plastic dinosaurs, soldiers, tiny action figures and other miniatures remind us of the way boys play “dolls”.  Likewise, her Pueri Arma (Childs Gun) — a toy rifle encased in a horizontal plastic tomb, presented over another horizontal  bar of resin containing decaying corrugated cardboard and other unidentified detritus — is another comment on the early age that boys mimic displays of dominance.  Puls notes the hair obsessions of little girls through Barbie wigs, perfectly coifed and mounted neatly on a wooden plaque.

Perhaps the iconic work of the exhibition is Don Fritz’ ceramic puzzle piece with Humpty Dumpty staring out at us.  Fritz’ ceramic works are less complicated than his works on paper in which one can engage many mysteries of childhood.  These works, also seen in the show, are deceptively benign and require a significant search for the anomalies and disturbing small details that contradict the oh-so-sweet life of the perfect child in the perfect fifties.  Humpty Dumpty, on the contrary, addresses directly the fragility of childhood and the inherent unsolved puzzle of how he shall be put together again after he is broken.

Don Fritz: A ceramic Humpty Dumpty

This large exhibition provides much food for thought and pure viewing pleasure with works by Squeak Carnwath, David Huffman, Isis Rodriguez, Laurie Reid and Kyle Reicher also contributing to the spectrum of interpretations. The curatorial approach of the Triton staff was collective on this project, part of a their new approach to involving all curators in the research and development of theme shows.  The show runs until September 19, 2010.

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