Tiny Talismans | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Tiny Talismans 

Complementary shows at Woman Made address the issues and abuses of the oldest toy.

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Devils and Dolls

at Woman Made Gallery

Alice Sharie Revelski: Dolls as Heroes

at Woman Made Gallery

Dolls are loaded objects. Thought to be the oldest toys, they've often had religious significance. And today they're a kind of Rorschach test for point of view. Google "doll art" and you'll find thousands of sites selling sweet, safe, socially acceptable miniature people to collectors. They can also be a vehicle for social subversion, however. In the 1930s German artist Hans Bellmer was celebrated in France for his use of dolls, often dismembered or deformed and posed sexually, as a response to the Nazis. Since then feminist artists have used dolls to question cultural expectations of women. Many of the works in Woman Made Gallery's "Devils and Dolls," a show of 45 artists, come across as fairly traditional dolls, falling somewhere between the poles of American Girl and Bellmer. I found myself drawn to these three-dimensional, tactile pieces rather than to the paintings and prints--usually because I coveted them. They were cute and I wanted to take them home, but where's the provocation in that?

Despite the show's title, many of these works demonstrate that dolls provide comfort even to grown women. Li Raven's small beaded Goddess of P.M.S. is a slightly bloated-looking woman in a gorgeous low-cut red dress who looks downright proud of her protruding belly. Karen Schuman's folksy beaded figure, Banana Lady, is cuddly despite her plain wooden head and spiky arms. The objects I coveted most, however, were Bridgette Tritz's Common Street Trash dolls. Brightly colored and tiny, they're made of broken key rings and other, less identifiable junk she found and adorned with cloth heads: she puts a face with long red yarn braids, for example, atop a tiny Eiffel Tower souvenir.

Dolls (like clowns) are perfect vehicles for the devilish, perfect agents of evil--just think of Chucky. But the doll images here that are only frightening are rather flat: two photographs of baby dolls with staring eyes--in Laura Shubert's Dollatry Series #18 the doll wears eye makeup, and in Seonaid Valiant's Berlin Devil it's dressed obscenely--have an impact but don't invite further reflection.

Dolls are perhaps most eerie and frightening when they're not evildoers but the passive recipients of violence. Even everyday dolls seem to invite abuse: little girls hack off their hair, wrench off their arms and legs, or deface them with crayons and pens. When I was little, I played a game I called "Burn" where I pretended my doll was in a house I set on fire. Such abuse in no way reduces our affection for our playthings--it might even increase it. And some of the strongest pieces in "Devils and Dolls" access the part of us that cherishes the objects we destroy or that are destroyed.

Jane Strasma's assemblage Healing Box consists of a large hinged box set on end with the lid open; on one side of the empty cavity is a suspended doll's head and torso, on the other a few doll parts. What look like twisting vines snake around both halves, emerging from the doll's shoulders like long, branching arms on one side and connecting the dismembered parts on the other. Some of the vines appear cut off, as if someone had opened the box and in the process ripped the vines apart--it appears the healing has been interrupted. With its outstretched "arms" the doll resembles a crucifix; I imagined myself inside the dark of the closed box, growing new arms or reattaching my lost limbs, but wasn't sure whether I'd feel comforted in there or alone and afraid.

Linda Brown's Devil Worship adheres the most closely to the show's theme: resembling a dressing table or altar, it's adorned with dozens of objects, most of them red or black and shiny. That makes the flesh tones of the two dolls stand out all the more: one is a baby doll with a screw through her heart and the other a more grown-up figure in fetish boots with a nail in her head. At first I didn't like the piece, finding it too obvious. But the more I looked the more I found in it an undercurrent of humor and acceptance that offset the sensationalism. I started to see the snake wrapped around a sconce as another doll, and the two sneering masks as dolls too. Ultimately Devil Worship puts satanism on a continuum with other forms of play. In fact it's possible to see all figures in art as dolls, made with the intent to manipulate and control so we can conquer our fears and find comfort.

Woman Made's companion exhibit to "Devils and Dolls" is Alice Sharie Revelski's "Dolls as Heroes," named for the handmade book that accompanies it. Revelski has painted a figure to go with each poem on the facing page, and at the book's conclusion she writes that "all of the dolls were painted from folk dolls in my collection." Taken together with another, smaller book--the humorous All Kinds of Rabbits--these volumes suggest a taxonomic purpose, the artist's wish to control by naming and categorizing.

The poetry can be a bit didactic, but I was drawn to one line: "I am an Indian / --grown--From my / papoose, origins there." This image helped me understand the small, rough three-dimensional figures that make up about half the show (the rest consists of paintings). Some of these rudimentary dolls are just heads (and occasionally arms too) emerging from long cloth bags, objects so plain and unartful I wondered why I liked them so much. Then I saw that these figures might be coming out of their cocoons, turning into the "heroes" of the show's title. Their resemblance to fertility fetishes took on a new meaning: instead of being talismans for conceiving babies or growing crops, they became magical objects representing--or inciting--processes of transformation.

In addition to the dolls in cloth bags--her "Angels" series--Revelski has made what look like crucified figures in "Crosses." Set on bases of found wood fastened in the shape of a cross (though one piece resembles a bone with the gristly joint exposed), these are even rougher than the papoose dolls: modeling clay has been slathered haphazardly on the wood to create the torso, and it appears there are no arms or legs. Only the head, with its vestigial features, is truly recognizable. The clay has been painted in ugly colors in no particular palette: pasty orange sherbet, faceless gray, a harsh, bloody red with turquoise streaks. Yet I felt drawn to these figures immediately. Looking at them again, I saw them as the heroes of the title--as the Indian grown out of its papoose and yet not fully emergent. Crucified, they're at the end of something and the beginning of something else. Frightening because of their sameness and their inhuman form, they're nevertheless comforting. Wherever they were going, I wished them well.

Devils and Dolls; Alice Sharie Revelski: Dolls as Heroes

When: Through 2/24: Wed-Fri noon-7 PM, Sat-Sun noon-4 PM

Where: Woman Made Gallery, 2418 W. Bloomingdale

Info: 773-489-8900

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