With ironic images of toys and cartoon figures, a number of contemporary painters, photographers and sculptors take incisive aim at the emotional underbelly of childhood in The Darker Side of Playland: Childhood Imagery from the Logan Collection, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from September 1, 2000, through January 2, 2001. Explaining how these representations question deeply rooted social mores, this exhibition includes over 30 playful and wicked works-drawn from the collection of Vicki and Kent Logan-by such contemporary artists as Gottfried Helnwein, David Levinthal, Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Laurie Simmons and Hung Tung-lu. As Kent Logan states, "Of the themes in our collection this exhibition will explore is what I like to call 'Children's Hour.'"
"In the popular imagination, childhood tends to be seen as a time of blissful innocence. Yet many contemporary artists present a more nuanced view, often exposing the darker side of childhood," notes Heather Whitmore Jain, the SFMOMA curatorial associate who organized the exhibition. "Dolls have the potential to inculcate gender or cultural identities. Toys and cartoon characters can be seen as monstrous, rather than charmingly sweet. Fantasy environments can be just as easily threatening as inviting. The works in this exhibition present the complexities of a child's experiences in the world created for them by adults."
Many of the 14 international artists in the exhibition incorporate toys and dolls in their work to question a child's perspective on early life experiences. For example, American photographers David Levinthal and Laurie Simmons manipulate dolls to present a complicated view of children's playthings while commenting on the state of postmodern America. The earliest work in the exhibition is Simmons' critique of the myth of the housewife, part of a series of photographs of female dolls carrying out idealized domestic situations. Pushing Lipstick (Red Lipstick), 1979, juxtaposes a miniature female figure with a life-sized lipstick to examine how familiar objects of consumption, often overwhelming to a child, relate to children's understanding of adulthood. In his Wild West and Barbie series, Levinthal draws upon the myth of the Western cowboy and the glamour of Barbie to fuel both a tribute to and critique of idealized notions of the American man and woman.
In Bad Seed 1938, 1996, Canadian artist Shonagh Adelman affixes a decapitated doll's body to an exaggerated painting of an antique doll head to reveal the often subversive nature underpinnings of childhood toys and their effects on the formation of body image. By inflicting harm on beloved toys, American photographer Heidi Zumbrum reflects on children's violent acts and questions: why violence occurs. Zumbrum creates grossly enlarged portraits of mutilated stuffed animals that have been mauled by her dog. The resulting photographs document the expression of excessive love as well as acts of violence.
Not surprisingly, the Mickey Mouse and other popular cartoon characters, take to hyperbolic extremes, surface in a number of work. Austrian painter Gottfried Helnwein created a gigantic eerie portrait (approximately 83 x 122 inches) of the famous mouse in Mickey, 1995. For Machine Gunned Minnie, 1995, American artist Joyce Pensato assaulted a drawing of Minnie Mouse with a machine gun. And Japanese artist Takashi Murakami created his own cartoon alter ego Mr. DOB-a cross between the infamous rodent and a pygmy doll-who not only satirizes the ubiquitous reach of American popular culture, but also poses a witty commentary on the potentially frightening effects of such icons. Murakami's Mr. DOB, 1995-an enormous balloon head afloat by helium gas-looms over the viewer making even a full-grown adult feel small and daunted.
Intimidation also reigns in Japanese artist Yashitomo Nara's One Way Dog, 1994, which takes a cute sculpture of a puppy to menacing proportions (standing ten feet high). The sense of absurdity and danger that the work inspires is reinforced by the small house at the puppy's side and the nonsensical wheels under its feet-after all, if this puppy were to play catch, it would bulldoze anything in its path. Likewise, Nara's paintings reiterate the darker side of child's play. In The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand, 1991, the large unblinking eyes of a little girl stare out of the canvas, distracting the viewer's gaze from the small knife she wields.
More often than not, the works in The Darker Side of Playland recall familiar childhood tropes, but contemporary artists often overturn these icons in order to interrogate the social and cultural implications of childhood and adulthood at the end of the millennium.
The Vicki and Kent Logan Collection is one of the most dynamic collections of international contemporary art being formed in the United States today. In December 1997, SFMOMA received an unprecedented fractional gift of approximately 250 works from their collection. The Darker Side of Playland is the third of seven focused exhibitions from the Logan Collection to be presented by SFMOMA through the next decade. In summer 2002, the Museum will unveil a large exhibition surveying the entire Logan Collection.