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Toy Soiree

Emily Puthoffs I Would If You Could in wax and hair.

Besides the obvious mind alteration and outright brainwash inflicted upon all the video game-obsessed minions who populate the elementary schools and high schools across our country, a less virulent but sad phenomenon awaits them in adulthood. It has nothing to do with the usual criticisms of overhyped sex and violence that go hand in hand with most forms of entertainment in the digital age. Instead, the current crop of adolescents faces a loss they may not realize -- the chance to yearn sentimentally for the toys they left behind around the time that body hair emerged. One only needs to log on to eBay to see Boomers and Gen-X'ers trading in this nostalgia. But it surely will be hard for this current generation to fondly recall plastic boxes and controllers, digitized pets and Tomb Raider graphics.

"Wonderlust," the current monthly offering at the Modified art space in beautiful downtown Phoenix, may be one of the last bastions, then, for fond remembrances of the playthings of our childhood. Because after this, the next crop of artists to reach maturity will be all about adapters, CD-ROMs, controllers and interactive game play. Try as they might, getting all worked up over the Playstation they had as a child just doesn't quite seem like proper imagery for an Edward Lear poem. The "wonder" in the title of this exhibition relates to the innate ability that one apparently possesses as a child to look at the world in a glowing innocence far removed from the cynicism of adulthood (found, especially, in critics, those bastards). Artists Emily Puthoff, Elena Sniezek and Martina Nehrling, all graduate students -- Puthoff and Sniezek at ASU and Nehrling at the University of Chicago -- continue this idea with works inspired by the thrown-away remnants of youth in the form of toys, music and memories.

Puthoff's work in this genre is interesting, though it may be the weaker portion of her creative vision. For her, the toys needing a savior are flocked animal statuettes; flock, by the way, is that pseudo-velvety material used to imitate animal hide that is found covering plastic figurines at your neighborhood souvenir stand and zoo gift shop. Puthoff's Flocked Deer, though, has a pair of glowing neon antlers, which gives a sense of power to what would definitely be future landfill material. The alighted deer, brought back from the dead, isn't quite aware of the power it possesses from above, like a young Luke still not sure of the power of the force. Though the work is supposed to give new life to a toy that would otherwise be overlooked, it doesn't quite reach such a lofty goal.

Elena Sniezek's piece, titled Starlings, is a series of toy guns, modeled from the packaging of dollar-store children's guns, done in sugar, then positioned to represent the birds from the title in flight. Starlings are aggressive birds, clearly outsurviving your usual crop of suburban sparrows, pigeons and doves. Introduced in the mid-19th century to Central Park in New York, the starling has found a way to push the others to the wayside and become the dominant species. Thus, like the birds themselves, Sniezek's toy guns, though done in sugar, recall the blunt aggressiveness of these birds.

Though the two works are endearing, the problem with the increasing use of toys in artworks is that it is, basically, too easy. Toys, especially throwaways, inherently possess a certain type of emotional baggage that pulls at the viewer through a Hallmark version of sentimentality; these once were shiny new objects, bought to make a child happy. But, after achieving such happiness, they now lie dirty and broken in the corner of some thrift store. Like the Land of Misfit Toys in the Rudolph Christmas special, such overt sentimentality is just a tad too sweet. And the toys' built-in effect on the viewer's emotions means the artist is not forced to create such impact through the quality of the work itself.

Puthoff, though, doesn't disappoint in the remainder of her offerings. She reaches a genuinely sincere form of sentimentality without having to fall back on the old idea of forgotten toys. Inspired by a class last year with ASU art professor Lew Alquist, Puthoff has assembled several pieces done in Super-8 film that clearly show the brilliance of her artistic expression. Eclipse is a short loop of film, projected first on a miniature drive-in movie screen, then partially blocked on the wall, showing a fireworks display, in all its colorful resplendence, bursting and illuminating the night sky. Puthoff says she shot the film while driving through Wisconsin one night, where she saw fireworks going off and pulled off the road to capture them. The loop of film, like the memory itself, is short. And, like the memory itself, the more the film is played, the more it will become cracked and faded. "Eclipse" works in all the right ways -- as a blurry remembrance of the beauty of a brief memory and as an example of how art can only do so much to capture the subtle yet fleeting elegance of such brief moments of transcendence.

In another video piece, a small paper butterfly dances breezily by means of a small electric fan across the projected image of a human eye. For Puthoff, the work is a delicate balance of the blinking of the eye with the fluttering of the butterfly while also commenting on the overculturized piece of Zen that mentions how the flapping of a butterfly's wings in South America could, through a series of cause-and-effect connections, create massive weather conditions in other parts of the world.

Again, Puthoff's piece succeeds because instead of relying on piped-in sentimentality, she has created a powerful work that speaks to these concerns instead of stating the belief directly. Puthoff's work does what every creative writing teacher will tell you: show, not tell. And by showing and not telling, the work allows the viewer to experience the idea directly instead of through someone else's sappy interpretation of it.

In Sugar Forest #1, Puthoff has created a forest scene on canvas done entirely in sugar. She has achieved this by using a shower curtain with a forest scene as a sort of stencil, so the trees on the canvas stand out where the surrounding sugar is not. For Puthoff, sugar is an artificial food that serves no real nutritional value, just like the superficiality of the forest on the shower curtain. Both the sugar and the curtain offer promises but end in a nothingness that leaves one quite empty. And Puthoff, by managing to illustrate this duality through the medium of her work, is achieving a sense of understanding that most artists can only wish for. Like the works in video, the message isn't hammered into the viewer, but is only gained through experiencing the work itself.

"Wonderlust" is without a doubt the best exhibit Modified has offered in this young season. And the place itself, which draws everyone from hip Metro Arts students down the road to new and established collectors, is quickly becoming the star of the downtown art scene. While Artlink's First Fridays monthly tour of art spaces used to mean an opportunity to visit all the artists' studios downtown, it has evolved into an excuse to hang out at this venue in particular. In fact, judging from the size of the crowds, it seems that many people nowadays make the tour a one-stop deal, foregoing the usual studio spaces for a chance to spend a couple of hours solely at Modified.


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