Artist A.S. Ashley has an abundance of childhood memories—not the least of which is eating an entire bottle of St. Joseph’s aspirin and having his father shove his hand down his throat to make the wee A.S. spew it up. In his Childhood Dreams show at the dA Center, he not only included personal flashbacks such as this, but asked artists to contribute their own intricate childhood wishes, photos and sculptures—anything at all that evokes the innocence and dreaminess of the past. (The upchucking episode was demonstrated during his performance piece opening night—and are we sorry we missed it!)
When it comes to childhood, the array of experiences is endless—some dark, some light, and some orange, like children’s aspirin. In this collection of memories, and artwork that transforms them, there is a multitude of style, but surprisingly little variation of theme. And so I had to wonder: are Barbies, illustrated monsters, pony pictures and Disneyland all seeds in every American childhood?
One thing is apparent, at least from the photos in the show—white people have certainly dictated what we obsessed over in our childhoods. And yet, as I walked past numerous Barbies—some glorifications, some lampoonings—I recalled that I never owned one. I did have the Charlie’s Angels figures, however, and while those were “super spy” girls and hardly the Barbie homemaker, they still had those horrible little sculpted feet. I wondered what my Mexican and Black friends would have contributed to a show such as this, if there was something outside of our white culture that we Caucasians had missed—then I remembered that my Mexican partner, whose parents were too poor to buy her a Barbie, longed for the white Barbies of her friends, and my girlhood friend Chrissy Reardon, who was black, owned a Cher doll. There was no way around it, apparently—white dolls of any kind were always more popular than ethnic ones, and still are. I would have welcomed an Afro on a pony picture or two, however.
Barbies and ponies aside, the show has a few standout works—and many others that will no doubt resonate with some viewers. One piece that, though small and somewhat tucked away, seemed connected to our modern age is Karen Jaime’s Oz-inspired illustration of a future/punk robowoman, her arm stretched out as if shunning a bleeding human heart. Even though it’s titled “If I Only Had Heart,” it seems more interesting the other way around, as if machines are smart enough to keep away from the turbulence of emotion; I appreciated the Metropolis departure from fairies and cuddly things, nonetheless. Anna Friesh’s “Purse Paradise” also evoked a modern commentary, but maybe it was something I ate that day. Her collage of girls with purses—three old-time photos in which a little lass clutches a purse and above the photos an image of an armoire filled with handbags—seemed to say that the gals had no way out of the accoutrement trap: purses are unavoidable symbols of the female gender and a destiny no woman can escape.
I had the same feeling looking at Amy Bystedt’s black and white photo of a little girl in a bridal veil, standing in a circle of white picket fence, her headpiece blowing in the wind. The title of the work merely describes the image, “White Picket Fence 3,” but showing a little gal pretending or wishing for an institution that again seems a pre-defined choice for women was unnerving (why do we never see little boys dressed as grooms, I wondered, and is marriage still the ultimate symbol of success and safety for women?). Clearly, though these images were created merely as remembrances, the very fact that these are the memories, tells us very much about how we are molded and sculpted from the moment we’re shot from the canal.
There is uncharged whimsical fare as well—photos of a boy with sand brushed on his face at the beach, a retro toddler on training pot in front of a TV, and a rather chubby curly-topped lad from the post-war era, his rolls of flesh left uncensored by the usual Leave it to Beaver modesty.
Of all the pieces, however, curator Ashley’s are the most highly crafted—his banner-sized tribute to puking up aspirin, his own adorable toddler face embossed on a baby blue background, and the collage of himself on that famous pony photo wedged between a postage stamp doorway, his adult face mirrored on the other side. Add to this that the dA offered actual pony photos at their opening reception to guests who sat atop a living pony, and it’s clear this show, while stronger in some areas than others, is the dream of a man who embraces his childhood, the good memories and the not so good. And while many of our childhoods had more nightmares than pastel-colored daydreams, to survive as adults, we often filter out the shadows of the past and focus on the light—and what could be more hopeful and childlike than that?
Childhood Dreams at the dA Center for the Arts, 252 South Main Street, Pomona, (909) 397-9716. Thru August 30, 2008