Liliana Porter's exhibition, "Secret Lives of Toys," slipped into the Phoenix Art Museum in early September when most of the bright lights were still shining on Annie Leibovitz's portraits of women. It overlapped the Leibovitz extravaganza for only a few weeks. But that was long enough for Porter's quiet images to ask not only, "What kind of photographs are we?" but also, "What kind are Annie's?"
Leibovitz's works were hyped as major new expressions from a cultural paratrooper who's made a career of dropping behind celebrity lines and crawling out with photographs purported to reveal the true identities, characters and quirks of people who often seem to exist only on stage. Her elaborately posed pictures of Hillary Clinton, Martina Navratilova, Marion Jones and some 100 other women continued in that vein. Yet they came in billboard sizes that advertised them as gender icons.
Porter's images couldn't have been more different. Like Leibovitz, Porter mines the open pit of mass culture. But her photographs of mass-produced dolls, toys and knickknacks in various poses aren't exactly celebrity shots.
Liliana Porter's "Secret Lives of Toys"
Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central
Continues through Sunday, November 26. For more information, call 602-257-1880.
They're relatively small and spare. The minimal stagings often have the dolls facing each other as if they're rehearsing a Beckett play in a toyland suffused with vivid colors.
Aside from Minnie Mouse and Mao Tse Tung in some shots, Porter's dolls are a populist array of penguins, piggy banks, plastic riflemen and other workaday stiffs.
In one picture, a toy pooch looks askance at a gaucho doll. In another, a tidy little boy -- every inch the little prince -- appears to be whispering into the ear of a quizzical-looking pig with a drum. In a third, a penguin doll is seen beaking his way toward a gilded but unplugged lamp in the shape of Jesus.
It's fairly easy to imagine your way into these tableaus, wondering what Porter wants you to think the little dolls are supposed to be doing, saying, pondering or arguing about.
She calls her doll encounters "dialogues." Their give-and-take leads to ink-blot imaginings with no firm answers.
What could the little boy possibly be asking the drummer pig in The Question?
What sort of looking-glass reality is being conjured in Blue With Mirror, in which a girl in a pale blue dress peers into a mirror?
What's the doll in Burden doing with a rock perched on its head?
And which of the two items in Chinese Dialogue is likelier to provide greater sustenance -- the Little Red Book in the hands of the Mao Tse Tung figurine? Or the wooden bowl beside it that's carved in the shape of a reindeer? Take your pick, propaganda or food?
These conundrums exemplify the artistic child's play that people never really abandon or outgrow. The histories of art, literature, advertising and, yes, politics, prove our propensity for giving imaginary creatures endearingly human attributes. We're constantly projecting our moods, empathies and desires in ways that are more figment than fact.
So the oinker in Porter's The Question appears to have a quizzical face. The critter under the weight of the rock in The Great Burden appears resigned.
"He looked so humble," a woman said of George W. Bush after the last debate.
But, then, so does the Minnie Mouse in Porter's photograph Minnie. She also looks a bit lost. Standing wee and wide-eyed on an immense glowing red field, she is truly mini. As much a pun as an icon.
Porter's image of an unplugged Jesus lamp is another pun: a powerless source of spiritual light.
Porter sometimes has a tendency to telegraph her punch lines with titles like Death Threat, featuring a green plastic rifleman taking aim at a bright-eyed, innocent-looking piggy bank.
And occasionally, she tries to delineate illusion from reality by attaching three-dimensional props -- a stool in one picture, a wooden shelf in another -- onto the surface of her photographs.
Such moves simply restate the obvious.
What's clear is that Porter's deceptively simple images draw from the alternating current of illusion and reality that has powered photography since its invention more than 150 years ago.
Once mistakenly thought to be an objective and supremely accurate mirror on the world, photography -- like other arts -- has become a reliable vehicle of subjective truths.
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The use of dolls and toys by Porter, David Levinthal (who exhibits photographs of toys at the Lisa Sette Gallery) and other artists represents this new photographic reality.
It's easy to understand why. Toys were conceived to live imaginary lives. Their fiction is part of their allure, part of their intimacy and fame.
The irony is that the "secret lives" of Porter's toys are no more illusory than the secret lives people like to imagine they're seeing in Leibovitz's portraits. As in Porter's work, the chief illusion of Leibovitz's is intimacy. The reality is that her long association with fame, as a shooter for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue, has simply given her the power to make celebrities and just plain folks pose and perform for her.
So don't worry if you missed her recent show "Women." Porter's exhibition can tell you all you need to know about the life of dolls.