“A Life of Their Own” for Pasadena Weekly

The armory displays the best and the worst of human nature in ‘Good Doll, Bad Doll’

May 2008

Barbie, it seems, could do it all: hike, ski, skydive, then it was off to Malibu for a sunset dip in the Pacific with Ken — all in the same day.

Then there was G.I Joe, the quintessential soldier, complete with rifle and bazooka, able to take on whole platoons of the enemy single-handedly and still have time to go for a ride in his Jeep afterward.

Today, there’s American Girl, a company that markets products, including dolls, that “celebrate a girl’s inner star — the little whisper inside that encourages her to stand tall, reach high, and dream big,” according to the company’s Web site.

Their dolls, unlike Barbie, Ken and G.I. Joe, are designed not so much for action but friendship, providing girls “with the friend that’s just right for her — with a story true to the character or one she creates all her own,” states the company site.

But then there’s the flip side of all that fun, healthy bonding and happiness.

Take, for instance, the voodoo doll, which has been used for hundreds of years as a way of exacting revenge on enemies with the stab of a pin or the touch of a candle’s flame, and is still in use to this day in some cultures.

For centuries, dolls have offered extreme ways of representing everyday people and emotions in a way that was safe, playful and cathartic, particularly for children, but also for adults and artists, some of whom have joined together for an exhibit at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts called “Good Doll, Bad Doll.”

“Dolls exist so that humans can act out — an activity usually frowned on in adults,” says guest curator and Art in America Corresponding Editor Michael Duncan. “As a result, dolls usually bear the brunt of their owner’s moods — and it’s not all tea parties with Teddy bears.”

Indeed, just as children may mistreat their dolls out of misplaced aggression, curiosity or just plain immaturity, the artists in “Good Doll, Bad Doll” take the status quo and tweak it to varying degrees in order to act out their own fantasies, some of which are disturbing, yet are more understandable in a gallery setting than in a child’s playroom.

The two dolls at the entrance of the exhibit have diverse appearances and meanings, but immediately represent dolls’ presence in culture over time.

“Another subtheme of the show is ‘Pygmalion,’ the sculptor who falls in love with his artwork and the artwork comes alive,” says Duncan. “I think it is a common dream of the artist that it takes on a life of its own, so I set up these two historical objects.”

A Papua New Guinea payback figure made around 1970 from wood, raffia and pig’s blood is still used in that country to represent an unavenged war death from a rival tribe; after payback is accomplished through the death of a member of the enemy tribe or monetary damages, the figure loses it meaning and is discarded.

Duncan contrasted the payback figure with a wax Italian figure of the infant Jesus, dated to about 1600, in a glass case.

“This is such a kind of Italian, European, Catholic idea of religion; something that you decorate and put in this unique setting,” says Duncan, who notes that the figure was not dressed until the 19th century.

“Good Doll, Bad Doll” stretches from the historic and somber to the current and silly, as seen in “The Mad Doctor’s Operation,” by sculptor Clayton Bailey and painter Peter Saul, who create a crude childlike ceramic sculpture of a person and various detached body parts. Bailey’s “Blob Creature” (an actual blob of goo, only with hair and eyes and living in a box) resembles a cartoon.

More atypical “dolls” appear in Marnie Weber’s “The Tender Desert” as life-size three-dimensional figures in white gowns with animal heads and painted breasts. While one figure is suspended above the gallery, as Duncan suggested, three figures are looking at a television that plays a two-minute looping film of a finger puppet banging into a cactus. Some may be able to guess a morsel of its meaning, but not even the most educated art aficionado could imagine Weber’s true inspiration.

Based on Weber’s fictional narrative series “The Unlovables,” the characters in “The Tender Desert” are a group of women exiled to a desert island for bad reasons and merged physically and spiritually with the local rodents to create a powerful super race called the “femme rodentia,” which were able to grow an abundant harvest of crops.

“We don’t know what their crimes were, but we know they became social outcasts,” says Weber. “It is a story of making something good out of a bad situation.”

Inspiration for the film’s head-banging finger puppet came from Weber’s personal life.

“The cactus represents our mistakes, and her hitting her head on the same cactus repeatedly demonstrates how sometimes we have to repeat our mistakes to learn,” says Weber. “On another level, it represents spiritual growth through pain.”

To make the piece more relatable, Weber’s figures are made of hand-painted cotton gowns. The heads are large balls of paper maché, while the film is shot on Super 8 film transferred to DVD.

“I think it is important to inspire younger people to make their own work,” says Weber. “I try to have the human element apparent in all my work and to appear as if anyone could make it. I can’t imagine young people inspired by work that appears to need a team of professional fabricators to create it.”

Coincidentally, Weber’s daughter is included in “Lily’s World”, one of two featured Nick Taggart paintings, which portrays Taggart’s daughter and her friends and interests, such as animals and dolls.

Almost 50 pieces are featured in “Good Doll, Bad Doll,” but what would a doll-centered show be without the archetypal Barbie?

Granted, E.V. Day’s “Mummified Barbies” are completely hidden under layers of wax and resin. But their influence remains and counter-balances much of her other works which deal with exploding feminine conventions.

“When I made the first ‘Mummified Barbies’ while living in Los Angeles, I was experimenting with notions of fetishism and concealment of the female body, and the body as an attainable object,” says Day. “It is an icon of an icon that continues to resonate, which is why I have continued to make them for so many years.”

The meaning has become more complex and layered for Day, who also associates the mummified Barbies with the current prevalence of burkas in the media and the struggles women face in the Middle East — as well as the normalcy of aesthetic surgery, as she imagines the mummies as women recovering from full-body cosmetic surgery.

Though children may be slightly confused or even frightened to see their precious dolls mummified or hear screams and odd sounds coming from Tony Oursler’s “Hellsucker,” in which a woman’s filmed face is projected onto a small blank doll, the exhibition has something for everyone and is appropriate for the Armory, says Duncan, primarily because of its strong youth education program.

“I think dolls are endlessly fascinating and they’re never going to go away or be out of vogue,” says Duncan. “No matter how technological we get, there’s always going to be a representation of you — your own talisman or your own reflection of who you are.”

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