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Fragments of Play

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Beloved toys and portraits are used to explore dark themes in “Play by Play,” a new exhibit opening this Saturday at Project 4. The pop-up exhibit is in collaboration with the arts group FLEX, with guest curator Kayleigh Bryant, and features the work of four artists: Amy Hughes Braden, Bridget Sue Lambert, Janelle Whisenant, and Mark Williams.

With a mix of sculpture, photography, and paintings, these artists alter and shift collective memories of growing up by utilizing kid-friendly color schemes and manipulating the imagery of iconic toys. Bryant was first inspired for the theme after a visit to Whisenant’s studio and seeing “murdered stuffed-animal guts,” spread around the workspace. Whisenant uses these tokens of discarded childhood, deconstructing the creatures from her own youth, as well as collecting abandoned plush companions from thrift stores and flea markets. Her sculptures elicit a gut reaction, while the viewer recognizes plastic eyes, patches of fur, and paws stitched together, remnants of what was once a child's most precious possession.

Braden's large paintings span an intriguing palette of colors between the vibrant rainbow of Lisa Frank Inc., and somber grays. Her portraits of children and teens capture some of the awkwardness and angst during that transitional time. “I Think We Can Do Much Better” haunts the viewer with traces of a baby’s face peering out, like a family photograph that was erased with layers of brushstrokes. Braden explores family dynamics, but also seeks subjects from pop culture and news. In “Madonna of Questionable Descent,” Braden portrays a woman holding a baby, staring out blankly, caught in a moment of introspection; this family portrait depicts alleged Boston Marathon Bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, seated on the lap of his mother.

Lambert uses vintage dollhouses to create and photograph miniature tableaux scenes that capture intimate moments in relationships. Dollhouses are tools for make-believe, and Lambert titles each piece with a line from a reality television show, layering the meanings of identity, sexuality, and cultural expectations. Peering into a private space of relationships, Lambert serves up what society is accepting as normal standards for respect and love. Each scene is meticulous and masterfully crafted. There is a surprising emotional pull from these plastic toys, such as the starkness and thoughtfulness of a female figure sitting on a bench in “Stop Worrying if He is the One.”

Williams uses imagery of toy soldiers in this selection of work, exploring how war is marketed to children through objects to play with. The green plastic figures are cheap toys, readily available, and recognized globally. He began working on this series during the Iraq War, creating scenes and dioramas to highlight how soldiers, combat, and war, became acceptable concepts for children’s playtime. Williams mixes the imagery of soldiers holding guns with cute cartoon animals and bright colors. Pieces like “untitled (yellow bunny),” pack a powerful punch of kindergartner propaganda.

The exhibit is refreshing and unsettling. Probing tokens of childhood nostalgia, "Play by Play" entices the viewer with candy colors, and delivers a thoughtful experience.

Opening reception at Project 4 this Saturday, January 11, 7-9pm. "Play by Play" is on view through February 1, 2014.

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