Queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton suggests that the term “growing up,” with its end point in adulthood, is erroneous. In her 2009 book, “The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century,” Stockton offers a more lateral model.
“Growing Sideways,” Catalina Schliebener’s delicious, absorbing, unsettling installation at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery, views childhood through a queer lens. The show explores play and imagination as undefined and evolving. You could say this is a show about queer childhood, but childhood, with its constant fluidity, is inherently queer. As soon as you think you know who you are, something changes.
The show, the first in the BCA’s “1:1 Curatorial Initiative” series, is curated by John Chaich.
Schliebener is a collage artist, and there’s no better medium for evoking the sheer peculiarity of childhood, when we patch together meaning and try to synthesize who we’re supposed to be from a tidal wave of disparate messages.
A central collage rings much of the bubble-gum pink installation, featuring familiar images from “Dick and Jane” children’s books, Disney cartoons, and etiquette and craft guides. It is small and unfolds lengthwise as if forever. The viewing feels intimate, like remembering dreams, as Schliebener seamlessly joins fragments into surrealist scenes.
Eeyore’s face conjoins that of a toddler; elsewhere, his tail pops out of a girl’s bubble pipe. The familiarity of the imagery is magnetic, sending us down rabbit holes of memory, prompting searches for story threads and meaning. But it doesn’t make sense: It’s odd and magical, fun and vaguely dangerous.
The collage spills off the page. Large vinyl Disney figures on the wall have missing heads and disconnected hands. Schliebener arrays toys on the floor in disturbing ways — sock monkeys trapped in boxes! — and lovely ones, such as an arc of mostly pink baseball mitts.
In loving ways, the immersive but delicate “Growing Sideways” captures the iffiness and turmoil of childhood, the tug and confusion of not knowing how we fit or who we are. Queering childhood, Schliebener normalizes how very weird it is. For this viewer, decades past youth, that felt like a relief.
CATALINA SCHLIEBENER: GROWING SIDEWAYS
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Oct. 24. www.bostonarts.org/event/catalina-schliebener-growing-sideways/