The Russian Doll Showby Sonya Shrier
65 Hope St. Gallery February 2004
As part of 65 Hope St. Gallery’s visiting curator series, Eddie Martinez commissioned thirty-eight fine artists, commercial designers, and graffiti artists to make their own versions of Russian nesting dolls. The structure of these dolls— something that opens to reveal a smaller version of itself— was used as the conceptual point of departure for the show, which explored variations within a collective.
The idea of the collective was perhaps not the show’s intended focus, but ended up its biggest asset. In Susan Stewart’s book On Longing she writes, "The miniature typifies the structure of memory, of childhood, and ultimately narrative’s secondary (and at the same time casual) relationship to history." The idea of the miniature as interior psychological space characterizes the shared aesthetic of these artists who use nostalgic colors, strong graphics, and ironic narrative. The artists in this show are not in any formal group and were simply chosen by Martinez to participate in The Russian Doll Show. However, their practice has its origins in collective culture, such as the Providence-based Fort Thunder and Philadelphia’s Space 1026, where the show is going between stops in Boston and L.A. Through the form of the Russian doll, each artist showed a playful approach to the implications of what it means to become miniature.
The majority of the artists succeeded in transcending the kitsch aspect of just decorating dolls. Ned Vena created a series of thug dolls, each outfitted in a different color mini-bandana. Shawn Gurczak painted his dolls as a family, giving an ironic tone to the formulaic Russian mold. Here the largest doll is the stuffy father in a suit holding a pile of bills, next comes the lascivious daughter making out with her boyfriend, then a pet gorilla giving the finger to the viewer, and at the end of the line, the angry grandfather.
Among the most successful dolls were those that provided insight into the theme of the miniature in an unexpected way. Gary Fogelson’s series depict different incarnations of a grotesque mixed-gendered person in a psychosexual R. Crumb style. A shaky, obsessive line is used to describe this character’s exaggerated body hair and sexual parts. The series starts with the full figure, showing torpedo breasts, erect nipples, and a mass of chest hair. The next two descending dolls show close-up faces, the first with a tormented expression, the next with a slobbery grin and goggles. The last and smallest shows the character featureless, sucked up into the shape of the doll itself. Here, the imagery feels as though it is speaking a personal language while retaining a look from the highest order of exterior— popular culture.
Work that seems to come from a very personal place while being constructed of shared narratives is at the heart of the movement that The Russian Doll Show is working to define; a movement that is just on the verge of getting the recognition it deserves in the mainstream art world.