Exploring sentimentality’s dark edges
BROCKTON - Here’s a nightmare scenario: You’re in a small room, and it’s jam-packed with tiny people, frozen in place. Some of the diminutive adults are outsized by figures of babies. There are monstrous people and salacious situations. Other goings-on may stir childhood memories - of eating Peeps at Easter, say, or playing with a grandmother’s pristine porcelain belles. Yet even as they evoke the comfort of childhood, odd twists wrench the sentimentality from them, and turn them dark.
Welcome to “Fresh Figurines: A New Look at a Historic Art Form,’’ at the Fuller Craft Museum. Independent curator Gail M. Brown has put together a lively exhibit of more than 50 works, mostly ceramic. She has artfully crammed the intimate pieces into a relatively small gallery, and the installation feels appropriately crowded. You don’t want to give these works too much room; they’d get lost. But even in this surrealistic cocktail party of a scene, there’s a feeling of someone else being in the room: centuries upon centuries of figurines past.
The artists wrestle directly and indirectly with a heritage that goes back to prehistory. Small clay figures - some apparently fetish or funerary objects - are evidence of early human society. We can guess, for instance, that the well-endowed female forms from prehistory known as Venus figurines lauded the sexual and procreative powers of women.
Leap ahead tens of thousands of years to the 18th century, when German ceramicists popularized porcelain figurines, often of gallantry and animals. Then let’s alight briefly in 1935, also in Germany, at the creation of the first chubby-cheeked Hummel statuettes, and you get a sense of what figurines have become to us: Forms charged with sentimentality, connoting innocence, nostalgia, romance, heroics, and sometimes social status. To the eyes of a contemporary art lover, they are too cute, too precious - and completely lacking in edginess.
How does an artist working in this tradition combat that perception? With a lot of vinegar. Look at Ronna Neuenschwander’s “Breaking the Mold’’ series, which ties Venus figurines and porcelain maidens together in a firm conceptual knot as she breaks down representations of women. Neuenschwander pieces her mosaic figurines together out of shards. They look like hoop-skirted Southern belles, but the white-faced girls have brown skin elsewhere, and vice versa. Their skirts are covered with bits of porcelain patterns that might have once been on plates or tea sets.
Like Neuenschwander, Thaddeus Erdahl tackles race in his dark, chiding “Black Face in Sheep’s Clothing,’’ depicting a white man in minstrel makeup, removing a sheep’s mask. The layers of identity and falsehood are so thick it’s hard to imagine who might really be there under all that makeup and costuming.
Chris Antemann dives into parody in “A Tea Party.’’ The porcelain scene of several male and female lovelies gathered around a table melds high tea and drawing room comedy with the early stages of an orgy. Everyone is paired up; many figures are nude or half nude, all flirting. The table is laid with delicate sandwiches and petit fours. And the centerpiece: a woman seated in a man’s lap as he more than obligingly pours tea into her cup.
If Antemann’s tea party conjures (and skewers) the European tradition of porcelain figurines and class-consciousness, David Furman pays homage to the creators of porcelain, the Chinese, in “Coupling.’’ The artist sets two figures - ceramic versions of wooden art mannequins - one on top of the other on a sofa covered with the traditional decorations of the Ming and Sung dynasties. The couch looks more seductive than the couple occupying it.
Future Retrieval, the artist duo of Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis, also quote history. Their “Beasts of the Chase’’ is based on an early 20th-century figurine of a hunter and two dogs by the German manufacturer Nymphenburg. Parker and Davis enlarged the dogs’ snarling heads and tattooed them with elegant but fierce patterning. They found the ferocious in the pristine.
Some of the most surprising works in the show flout the traditions of scale. When something almost outrageously big comes along in a gallery of art requiring close-up scrutiny, it breaks the tension. So it is with Amy Santoferraro’s “Bluebird, Yellow Base.’’ This would be a cute little Peeps-like bird, but Santoferraro has blown it up to bread-box size, transforming something sweet and easily dismissed into something monstrous.
Likewise, Hide Sadohara makes heads of Popeye and Olive Oyl, and mounts them on the wall like trophies. They’re not only life-size, they’re far more human looking than Popeye ever was. The sailor grimaces and squints, all right, but his face is a map of wrinkles, and poor Olive Oyl, despite her exaggeratedly snubbed nose, looks beaten down by grief.
Unfortunately, not all the works in “Fresh Figurines’’ are able to combat a weighty legacy of coy sentimentality with that kind of spinach-fueled power. A handful of pieces, especially those featuring babies, such as Russell Biles’s “Family (Ava),’’ depicting a little girl with arms outspread, and “Little Boat’’ by Beth Lo, are gracefully made but lack conceptual edge. There is such a great tide of warm-and-fuzzy porcelain figurines out in the world, there’s almost no way to swim with it and make original work. So instead, bring on the bite.