Through the ages, humans have been fascinated by things large and small, especially when those things resemble, to some extent, ourselves. Larger-than-life superheroes, villains and monsters have long been a staple of comic books, but their predecessors were the heroes, villains and monsters of Greek and pagan myths long before Superman shed his Clark Kent duds to fly faster than a speeding bullet to the rescue. Thanks to the 20th century's pervasive mass media, such figures became part of the landscape, on billboards and posters as well as in our living rooms via television.
Pop art celebrated this phenomenon, and continues to do so even now in the colorful works of artists such as Michael Thrush. As with any established genre, pop can become rote, so work that has a spark to it is the exception, and Thrush's work is indeed fresh, if perhaps a little too fresh for some; his eloquently executed canvases possess a politically incorrect audacity that can be either refreshing or unsettling. The violence of an image like Pow, in which Superman lands a right hook on Wonder Woman, is redeemed only by the knowledge that it's make-believe. It may be distasteful, but who said superheroes were in good taste? And you have to assume that Wonder Woman can take care of herself, though that may be scant comfort to women who think his work perpetuates the kind of sexploitation that it purports to critique.
Foo Foo is a convoluted composition featuring Brer Rabbit slugging a tar baby as Tinkerbell sprinkles pixie dust, a chorus of Easter bunnies parades in review, and Mr. T reproaches Brer Rabbit for being a fool. The tar baby is actually a front for some kind of mutant sci-fi monster, and through it all you can see the rebel flag in the background. Like Pow, it's nicely painted and, like Pow, it plays with symbols the way a pyromaniac plays with fire. All in all, it's provocative, proficiently realized stuff from a talented, if possibly warped, pop artist.
The appeal of superheroes and supervillains lies in their god-like ability to intervene in the lives of mere mortals, making vast forces beyond our control somehow more malleable as agents of the imagination. Dolls, as echoes of our desires, fears and fantasies, perform related functions. Such is their talismanic history; as effigies, dolls have always had a touch of witchcraft or voodoo about them, Barbie and Ken notwithstanding. In fact, Barbie and Ken may be corporate America's own voodoo dolls, simulacra of the ideal consumers they hope all children will grow up to be.
Barbara Franklin's dolls at the Neighborhood Gallery are more innocent, dealing with the evolution of traditional Afro-American stereotypes into more modern and complex personas. But the Dolls, Puppets, Automatons and Homunculi show at Poet's Gallery harks to the darker history of dolls as expressions of the untamed side of the psyche. Curated by Angel Eirlys, it reiterates gothic themes of beauty, fear and doom with countless curious little folk stashed in every nook and cranny. The tone is set with some Victorian dolls in the window, including a cute, mechanical Lord Fauntleroy waving a teddy bear in one hand and a knife in the other.
A glittering edifice by Jim + Jen resembles a kitsch palace at first, but soon suggests Bluebeard's Castle with lewd and bestial scenes within. More romantic is Pandora Castelum's lovely young maiden in an antique bridal gown lying in repose, breasts exposed to reveal a crimson puncture at the region of the heart. But on a more uplifting note, another deceased maiden by Raven Hinojosa arises from her casket as if to smell the lilies in a nearby vase.
A tableau of little folk, wasp nests, petite crockery, tiny star fish and old lace by Angel Eirlys suggests a doll house of icons, symbols of what little girls are made of. Nearby, an antique doll's head appears atop a skeletal spring mechanism -- a vintage automaton by Haley Lou Haden -- while various unearthly creatures by John Greco, Chesley Allen and Myrtle von Damitz round out the homunculi component. It's a varied show that, at its best, fulfills Hans Bellmer and the surrealists' vision of dolls as the shadow side of official culture, the Dark Lady beyond that cute Barbie facade.