Art: Dolls, Dolls, Dolls

ArtWorks' latest exhibition delves into artifice

Dec 20, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jim Fugett

Rhonda Gushee's distinctive figures are a highlight of ArtWorks Gallery's Figuratively Speaking.

The current exhibition at ArtWorks Gallery, Figuratively Speaking, is a collection of dolls. More accurately, the exhibition investigates some of the most interesting ideas that contemporary art has to offer — the Freudian theory of the "uncanny," the complexity of stereotyping, the concept of phenomenology, the confrontation of reality and hollowness in our two-dimensional world.

In the 21st century, our worlds revolve around two-dimensional screens — from TV to movies, from computers to Blackberries, from play to work — everything, it seems, has gone flat. What happens, then, when we are forced to confront some of the last 3-D objects in our society — other people? How do we react to them, and they to us? Which one of us is real?

In essence, these questions are a lot of what Figuratively Speaking is all about. The artists in the show — mostly Cincinnatians, but at least five from outside the city — make dolls, replicas of human forms, fake people. The dolls are of us, but not us. They are empty of thought.

They represent our interpretations of humanity, taking on so many swollen forms.

Chris Sickels, an Art Academy of Cincinnati grad who has moved on to drawing for The New York Times and Disney, has created small, realistic yet cartoon-like mixed-media sculptures. Included among them is "EAPoe," a sad but humorous take on the famous writer. The figure is instantly recognizable: It's Poe, for god's sake. He has a raven on his head. But something happens after that first look. Sickles' Poe is so obviously a caricature of the man himself — a stubborn impression of a dark writer whom we can't ever understand, simply because we have never been that man.

Once it dawns on you that this Poe is not just any Poe, but a fake Poe, a lost Poe, a Poe that never was, go ahead and walk through the rest of the show. Rhonda Gushee's beautiful and disturbing raku clay and mixed-media figures are precious children and beauty queens and carnival freaks all rolled into one. They're covered in unreadable newsprint. They're dead, beautiful mistakes. We can look them in the eye, say hello even, and walk away feeling that creepiness that comes with realizing mortality. Our own mortality: We aren't anything special.

So, as we pass along and meet eyes and forget them just as quickly, forget anything not associated with our own selves, our own egos, we realize every thousandth step or so that we, too, are the vaporous "other" for our strangers.

Some of the dolls in Figuratively Speaking look like toys — Katie Swartz's knitted things, for example. And then, the same artist will surprise you with art that looks nothing like toys — looks hard and fucked up and sad. The juxtaposition of the two is shocking and makes the viewer a little uneasy. It's supposed to. It's like being so normal, and suddenly being confronted by a homeless person who isn't afraid to look you in the eye.

These figures want you to see them. They want you to pay attention to their sad, broken hearts (see Pam Kravets' "Shit Eating Grin"). They want you to notice their artifice. They want you to see your own. Grade: A

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING continues at ArtWorks Gallery through Friday.