Children are anything but angels.
Any mother, father, aunt, grandfather, older sister or brother has had the experience of seeing little Johnny rip off GI Joe’s head, and young Caroline strip Barbie and Ken of his and her clothes.
The first exhibition curated by DC-native and ArtSee alumna Kayleigh Bryant in collaboration with FLEX, the temporary exhibitions group led by Calder Brannock of Camper Contemporary, this group show highlights the taboo gap between childhood innocence and adult reality, by re-contextualizing such mature themes as war and sex, within the context of children’s play.
Entering the first floor of the two-story exhibition space, the viewer is confronted with Amy Hughes Braden’s poignant portraits of children and their parents.
Academically trained as a portrait painter at Pratt and the Corcoran, Braden has a unique ability to render harrowing emotion through painted facial expressions. Instinctive feelings of sorrow that leap off the canvas and assault the viewer are deepened and emphasized through shaded areas, highlighted with bright blues, fiery reds and neon yellows. Gazing at Braden’s paintings, one experiences the sense of solitude that is so common to children and teens coming out of innocence.
“They have this kind of like eeriness, like there’s something underneath. There’s a little darkness,” said Bryant of Braden’s work.
Just when Braden’s Bridget (Shy) and Reed settle into the viewer’s psyche, he finds himself in the upstairs gallery, cheerfully lost in the whimsical worlds of Bridget Sue Lambert, Mark Williams, and Janelle Whisenant.
“I think there is a lot of playfulness happening in the art world now, and I think the idea of humor has been graced as a legitimate form of expression or form of talking about social issues,” said Bryant.
Lambert’s large-format pigment print Let Me Know offers a glimpse into an empty bedroom. The black and white color scheme, speckled with a burst of red color from the lamp and flower on opposing sides of the room, creates an image of sophistication. However, open drawers and miscellaneous items on the floor complicate the image and the viewer wonders what transpired to leave this room such a wreck. Upon closer examination, one notices handcuffs and a Bible lying on the bed, illuminated by an unknown light source.
Taking the new discoveries into consideration, along with the realization that this is no ordinary bedroom, but is in fact, that of a dollhouse, it becomes impossible to resist the temptation of a coy smirk.
“They’re meant to be a little over the edge of what people are comfortable with,” explained Lambert who says her artworks, in which she stages and photographs dolls and dollhouses, use humor, sincerity, and playfulness, to explore relationships.
Lambert’s dollhouse environments are apt counterparts to Williams’ staged toy soldiers, sometimes manipulated with play-doh, other times appearing alongside plastic animals.
“I started going to Toys R Us and seeing how war toys were expanding and how camouflage started becoming much more popular. I even saw camouflage Easter Eggs,” explained the Connecticut-based Williams, who, while in graduate school at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, created the works in response to the US invasion in Iraq in 2003.
Williams’ deliberate choice of materials was informed by his awareness that items like toy soldiers and play-doh were becoming increasingly available to young children during wartime, and that children often stage toys in shocking compositions, such as Butt Plug, in which a soldier kneels on one knee with his gun touching a horse’s rear.
Like Lambert’s sexually curious dolls, Williams’ soldiers are posed in jest, yet retain somber undertones. In United Nations, a dark green soldier is surrounded by plastic animals — ducks, donkeys, rabbits, dogs and deer — poking fun at the idea of the United States as an ego-centric entity capable of ordering the animal-like nations of the world to do America’s bidding.
While Lambert displays her final artworks as large-format photographs that enthrall the viewer with minute details of settled dust on door frames or glimmering reflections in mirrors, Williams’ 4 x 6 inch one-hour photos, and his small-scaled diorama with a 4 x 6 inch opening revealing a black-lit interior battle scene, entice the viewer to interact with the images on a personal level. Furthermore, the viewer is reminded of ways in which families used to send memories to their loved ones over seas, prior to the popularization of printing digital photographs at home.
Rounding out the exhibition, the fiber-based sculptures of University of Maryland, College Park MFA Candidate Janelle Whisenant provide an extra dimension within the exhibition space
Made by manipulating stuffed animals, pulling them apart at the seams, and turning them inside out, Janelle’s action-based sculptures articulate the process many children enact when altering their own toys, whether out of anger or curiosity. Placed among Lambert and Williams' satirical artworks, Whisenant's tormented sculptures spark conversation with Braden's somber paintings downstairs, reminding the viewer that a child's subversive play may not simply be, all fun and games.
Splendidly curated by Bryant, Play By Play inspires controversial and socially relevant discussion, while keeping the joyful spirit of the naive child alive. As Williams says, “As an artist, you’re always told while you’re working, that your innocence is at play. It’s very imaginative and harkens back to being a kid and doing your own thing,”
Bringing the Art in DC to You,
Play By Play opens with a reception with the artists January 11, 7:00 - 9:00 PM, at Project 4 Gallery, 1353 U Street NW.
The exhibition runs through February 1. Regular gallery hours are Wednesday- Sunday, 12:00 - 6:00 PM.