Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
-- Dylan Thomas, "Fern Hill"
Dylan Thomas knew the harsh truth that childhood is nothing but a myth. No matter how much we adults contrast our experience in the here and now against the glories of innocence and youth, most of these sentiments are merely thinly disguised longings for a pre-bills, pre-responsibility, pre-rat-race existence.
Paradise lost? When, we must ask, was it ever found? We only have to look toward the nearest psychoanalyst's couch, or actually the nearest chair on a Jerry Springer set, to determine that childhood is a fertile breeding ground for resentments, instabilities and insecurities. Sorry, but this is far from bliss.
Regardless of whether this revelation comes as a shock to you, I would suggest heading over to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and checking out the "Almost Warm and Fuzzy" exhibit, where the theme of childhood-as-nowhere-near-warm-and-fuzzy practically screams at you while it simultaneously chases you down the hall demanding your lunch money. This is not a criticism; it's an excellent show, perhaps even the best collection of contemporary works to come through town in years.
It does mean, however, that taking children to this exhibit may not quite be worth the effort. Sure, they'll enjoy some works, probably even find some amusement in the show, but they will miss altogether something much larger. In fact, the whole idea of gearing "Almost Warm and Fuzzy" toward children takes away from the quality of the work and does serious injustice to the artists involved.
A perfect illustration of this marketing misstep is Marc Quinn's sculptural piece I Thought I was the Sun King: Nervous Breakdown, 1999. Quinn, an artist who has received considerable attention because of the bad-boy young British artists he gets associated with, has previously sculpted his own head out of human blood and again out of his own excrement -- aptly titled Shithead. What else would you call it? In Sun King, Quinn gives us all the energy and desperation of an emotional breakdown as his own face, framed in a glowing yellow disk, melts into long flowing tendrils of bright colors and reemerges on the floor as a shapeless mass of mixed paint. The work is enough to rouse any child, let alone an adult, from the land of Nod, and the theme -- besides the obvious need for control over one's surroundings -- is beyond the reach of most children's understanding. But don't expect help from the wall plaque, because it comes across almost as a joke, saying "The sun king was a French king in the 16th century. Do you know where France is?" And, by the way, boy, don't you just love those French fries?
In fact, besides viewing the art, the most interesting thing to do at the exhibit is to go from piece to piece, be struck by the serious social, political and environmental tragedies being addressed, then read the wall plaques and see how blatantly such themes have been "overlooked" by the curators.
Even art stars get the same treatment. Jeff Koons, most famous for his series of lifelike sculptures of him and his former Italian porn star-turned-politician wife Ciccolina getting it on, is represented in this show by a bronze soccer ball. At first glance, the work hardly seems to have much substance at all -- a life-size soccer ball perched quietly behind glass. But, looking closer, you see the phrases "Known around the world as the best" and "#1 King of the soccer world," which propel the work from mere representation to social satire, standing as a not-too-pleasant monument to all those sports-obsessed fathers who haunt the Little League fields and Saturday-morning soccer tournaments across America. But, again, the wall plaque hints at nothing of the sort, only asking us, "Imagine kicking this ball. How far would it fly? What would it do to your toes?" After a series of such innocuous cue cards, one gets the feeling that the joke is indeed on us.
It's not just a few artists who become Saturday-morning PBS fodder. Alexis Rockman has contributed his alphabet bestiary, comprised of wonderful watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings of 26 animals that can be found nowhere but the artist's imagination. Yet each genetic hybrid representing a letter takes on a theme of its own, cleverly cutting through to the basic premise that human beings have really screwed up the once-glorious animal kingdom. The Kanga Doodle Doo, for example, is "the offspring of a chicken raped by a Great Red Kangaroose, and used in a last-ditch war effort as a staple in army food rations" until an overabundance of the species led to "mass corralling and bulk sales of the animals to Latin American countries for use as fertilizers." Not quite Dr. Seuss material; try reading that one to your child at bedtime.
Artists Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara both take on the world of Japanese Manga comics and popular culture. Despite the fact that Nara's piece The Little Pilgrims will be mistaken -- as it was time and again the day I saw the exhibit -- for Tinky, Winky and Po or whatever the hell those Teletubbies call themselves, it still manages to speak directly about America's reluctance to adopt any portions of Japanese culture outside comics and animation.
If you're looking for unadulterated childhood joy, the exhibit does happen to offer up a few selections, such as Charles Ray's Fire Truck. Ray takes a common, plastic red fire engine and re-creates it on a grand scale, close to 20 feet long. It's every child's wish come true, in all its plastic-entrenched majesty. Sandy Skoglund's Shimmering Madness is pure beauty, showing two life-size child figures, made entirely of jellybeans, dancing together. The museum says the artist and her sister spent countless hours making sure that no jellybean would be placed against any of the same color. And behind the dancing figures, Skoglund has created a vast wall of brightly painted butterflies that move and flutter in random succession.
"Almost Warm and Fuzzy" is almost a brilliant art show, but it's held back by the silly marketing that implies that contemporary art can only be stomached when it makes the whole family feel happy and warm all over. Seventy-five thousand children viewing the Egypt show at Phoenix Art Museum several years back made it clear that the best antidote for falling attendance figures -- a current problem at the Scottsdale Museum -- is to bring on the kiddies in droves, or, should we say, school busloads. Too bad the art also must be relegated to such a low common denominator in the process.
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