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
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
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
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
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
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
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.