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Dolls Enthrall & Gall All

Thursday, August 10, 2006
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Heather Goodchild “Untitled”

By: Matt Lahey

I feel quite lucky to have experienced all the things I have throughout a summer of cruising the vernissage circuit – the chance to ogle blood-spattered tranny-tits; smile condescendingly at images of sawtoothed Norweigian metalheads; offer past Governor General Award recipient Istvan Kantor a slice of pizza as he dug away at a sidewalk tree plot with his filthy hands. So, out of all these events, why am I choosing to relate to you the details of the current show entitled Hello Dolly at Spin Gallery? You know, the one dealing with the complex sociological implications of humankind’s affinity for . . . dolls?

Well, as an exhibition showcasing single works by a variety of artists, it allows for an interesting comparison of the variety of ways in which the show’s off-kilter theme is addressed. Also, it gives an opportunity to check out a cross-section of the artists working in the Queen West visual art scene. If that name means nothing to, well . . . I’m not surprised. The art community focussed along Queen St. W. in Toronto appears somewhat insular to the outsider, but since the fairly recent transformation of the surrounding neighbourhood from being populated with ne’er do-wells to one filled with misfits of a more romantically-dishevelled and visionary type, it’s become an incubator for fresh ideas and approaches towards artistic mediums, and is in the process of transforming Toronto’s, and Canada’s, art scene.

That being said, despite the variety of approaches taken by the 69 artists featured in the show, it isn’t hard to spot some recurring aesthetic trends, many of which have manifestations in larger popular media – the grey shades, lacy fabrics and weathered materials of the Victorian Gothic; the neon kool-aid toned eighties worship of gaudiness and cock-rockery; and, the quite frankly played out ‘edgy,’ ‘youthful’ graf-inflected manga-proportioning of figures. Interestingly, nearly all of the works are focussed on a fairly literal interpretation of the doll theme, with children’s dolls featured prominently in most of the pieces.

The more successful of the works focus on an interpretation of the doll as a representation of a constructed human, a replica of a figure which, through its constructed artificiality (being a ‘fake’ thing which is simulating a ‘rea’l thing), somehow evokes a sense of true, concentrated humanness. The frayed edges and loose threads of Erin O’Hara’s Heartbroken Orphans series – a set of oversized, stuffed, hollow-eyed fetus dolls – hint at a violent abandonment, and pen scribblings on the fabric take on the ominous tone of scars and lesions, pain and molestation. A similar feeling of being lost and losing one’s self pervades Heather Goodchild’s Untitled work, where small felt figures inhabit a flattened Edward Gorey-like landscape of tall grey trees, all of which are encased in a wood box with a glass viewing panel – the deliberate trapping and framing of the small figures effects a dream-like removal from reality, or a glance into a nightmare unfolding. Natalie Matutschowky’s Crewdson-style photograph of stuffed woodland creatures staging a one-on-one battle (think Fight Club meets Fables of the Green Forest) eerily removes the subjects from ‘real’ humanity by a factor-of-two by focussing on fake animals (as opposed to fake humans), which she then uncannily imbues with the unsettling human predilection for violence and gruesome spectacle.

So, viewing dolls as constructed humans who are able to convey human experiences and emotions by way of their artificiality and construction — good. Trying to subvert the doll as paradigm of youth and innocence — bad.

Take, for example, the piece which depicts a Ken doll laid out in a little bed with . . . another Ken?! It just doesn’t work – maybe back when Robert Mapplethorpe’s images of pendulous cocks blithely defied accepted portraiture and morality standards I would have cared, but really, these days the idea of Ken holding clandestine trysts behind Barbie’s back isn’t quite so shocking; it’s almost . . . quaint. I think the problem is that the fantasy image of the doll as representing the purest and most socially acceptable form of humanity has long been shattered – for the sake of the kids’ self-esteem we’ve already overtly de-legitimised clean-cut, fit-right-in Barbie as a representation of the societal norm (covertly, however, that’s a different case entirely). These further attempts to subvert this paradigm come across as simply tired and worn out. The problem comes to a head with Juno Youn’s meditation on the nature of good and evil which he accomplishes by combining a child’s baby doll with leather sex garb, and — get ready for this — a Hitler moustache. What? That’s textbook agitation – a lazy combination of an icon of innocence and purity (baby doll) with an icon of evil (guess).

Bernice Lum “Lumbuds”

These and thematically similar pieces suffer, in part, from the artists’ decision to render their work immediately (and mind-numbingly) readable, making the pieces come across as superficial and one-note; the artists fail to recognize the doll as being the object loaded with memory and complex personal associations that it is. Accordingly, more successful than those relying on facile associations are the works which are imbued with a sense of narrative, where multiple readings are allowed and encouraged. The large yeti-like bear in Daphne Gerou’s drawing Bear and Girl, for example, is either comforting, embracing, restraining, or suffocating (or perhaps all at the same time) the small girl in his claws, depending on the viewer’s reading of the work. Or take Bernice Lum’s excellent Lumbuds, a series of stuffed manifestations of real profiles from an internet dating service which seek relationships with ‘buddies.’ They come across as being morally ambiguous, humorous, salacious, and oh-so-huggy-wuggy all at the same time — complex mind-fuckery made cute.

Of course, all of this goes completely out the window when it comes to my favourite piece at the show, Camilla Singh’s Eggman. Measuring about 5 inches tall, it consists of a plush representation of an egg (sunny-side up!) standing on two pipe-cleaner legs which are finished with a pair of Mickey Mouse shoes. What’s it mean? I dunno — sometimes a doll’s just a doll I guess.

Hello Dolly runs at Spin Gallery (1100 Queen St. W, 2nd floor) until August 11th, 2006.yehalttam

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, August 10, 2006 2:27 pm

    Just to to be totally irreverent, that first picture looks like an unused scene from a Tim Burton claymation film.

    Interesting article though – dolls with Hitler moustaches, geesh, these crazy kids today, what’ll they think of next?

  2. Matthew permalink
    Thursday, August 10, 2006 4:14 pm

    Yeah, that piece is very Burton-esque. I reference Edward Gorey with respect to that work, and Burton’s work (especially Corpse Bride and The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy) is often quite influenced by him.

    And Hitler… you’d think we’d have had enough of him, eh?

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