Kiddy Art Gets a Makeover
By Kari Wethington

An exhibit that invites an adult crowd to meditate on their not-so-distant pasts and to rediscover the child within is harder than it may sound. Museum settings can naturally induce a childlike wonder in adults — by gazing at objects that make no sense on the surface while guarding stories within, viewers are invited to imagine for themselves an artwork’s version of reality.
This act of looking and investigating is reminiscent of childhood walks through the woods where every new leaf or colorful stone is a whole universe for consideration. These themes are tackled, but not always with success, by Almost Warm & Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art, the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art’s latest exhibit.
The diverse and eclectic selection of contemporary art succeeds in invoking a viewer’s nostalgia for yesterday but overwhelms its own focus and tends to alienate its adult audience by attempting to reach an imaginary audience of seven-year-old contemporary art critics.
The exhibit’s most impressive pieces bridge the gap between an adult’s readiness to critique and a child’s interest in new encounters. One such piece is Bill Scanga’s “At the Met,” which features stuffed mice visiting a small-scale, but surprisingly accurate replica of the American art galleries in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Placed at floor-level, the mini-galleries stretch across about four feet of wall space with the tiny mice staring up at the relatively huge, mahogany-framed landscape paintings. The attraction of Scanga’s piece is its personification — the mice carry shopping bags in perfect New York style.
Also displaying this balance between child and adult curiosity is Laurie Simmons’ ilfochrome [a positive-to-positive color printing process] “Three Castles,” where a sleepy, snowy landscape is delightfully interrupted by a vibrant castle. If Disney World were a dark and tranquil solar system, this castle would be its sun. The piece owes much to technology while portraying its subject magically.
Even more enticing is the “Alphabet” series by Alexis Rockman. Rockman’s watercolor-and-ink paintings imagine 26 new creatures, mostly combinations of living and extinct animals, as representations for each letter of the alphabet.
The vivid watercolors bring the biology to life and alongside each creature is a hilarious Latin name and a description. Q is for “Quackzilla (Malardi japonicus)” and V is for “Vampster,” which was “discovered in the boiler room of a Nebraska elementary school” and is an endearing fusion of hamster and vampire. A is for “Aardalope,” an aardvark/antelope that “sometimes have difficulty running when distracted by the size difference between their front hindlegs.” Rockman’s alphabet exudes irresistible creativity.
Almost Warm & Fuzzy also brings a number of brilliant sculpture and installation pieces to the Center. Joseph Schnieder’s “Sea of Tranquility” is a giant, incredibly decorated and interactive ship that allows the viewer to tug on strings that raise and lower the sails and pulleys that fire bunches of confetti out of canons and onto the gallery floor. Then there’s Colombian artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s “Cardoso Flea Circus” that combines giant silky tents and a video displaying magnificent flea feats.
Some of the works in the exhibit are less playful and present more disturbing themes, but they are not put into the context of their “not-quite-arts-and-craft-time” approaches. The exhibit curation ignores or glosses over elements of these works that are central to the complex nature of contemporary art. Sandy Skoglund’s jellybean sculpture “Shimmering Madness” is lively except that the torsos of the two children at the center of the piece are facing forward while their heads are turned completely backward. Add to this the mechanical butterflies swarming behind the mixed-up children and the piece becomes something that children would probably not relate to or want to relate to, yet the museum label focuses only on childhood delight in sensory experience.
Equally incongruous is the exhibit’s insistence that “Village People,” Charles LeDray’s 32-piece collection of miniaturized hats — from baseball caps and military headgear to a Santa hat – is about the important roles men play in society. That explanation seems too easy and doesn’t explain why LeDray would invest so much time and attention into making hats, especially hats that are to be hung in galleries and not worn.
It’s all fine and good to return to that innocence and fascination with life that perhaps the entire adult population of America has left behind somewhere, and in the post-Sept. 11 world maybe this idea may have become more relevant. However, that does not explain or forgive museum labels that oversimplify an artist’s work.
The question is whether the children for whom the labels are written will actually visit this exhibit. The pieces are definitely provocative, often bright and big and interactive, but it’s probably not the sort of art children would make themselves or want to analyze. It’s a great idea, but it just doesn’t translate. Almost Warm & Fuzzy brings its labels down to size for the wee folk that may visit, but sound pretty ridiculous to the majority of museum-goers.

Almost Warm & Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art will be on display until Nov. 17 at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. The Center is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and late night Thursday until 8 p.m. and is located on the second floor of the Cleveland Playhouse Complex at 8501 Carnegie Avenue. Admission is $4 or $3 for students and is free on Fridays.

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