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The Art Guys
(Michael Galbreth & Jack Massing)
The Big Sneeze
1995
in "Almost Warm and Fuzzy"
at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center



Joseph Schneider
Sea of Tranquility
1990-98



Sandy Skoglund
Shimmering Madness
1999



Takashi Murakami
installed in the P.S. 1 café.



David Beck
Dodo Museum
1980
(foreground)
with Daniel Oates So He Decided to Take (a Nap)
1997



Michelle Sega
Golden White Slice 2 (& Crumbs)
1996



Tom Otterness
Covered Wagon
1998
Fuzzy Logic
by Robert Mahoney


"Almost Warm and Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art," Feb. 4-Apr. 8, 2001, at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, N.Y. 11101.

"Almost Warm and Fuzzy," the lively if flawed exhibition that recently opened at P.S.1, is said to feature artists "who have never lost their connection to childhood."

While some adults can communicate with kids on their level, most grownups who make a fetish of their childish tendencies are locked in unending infantile dramas and in fact scare children. While the show refers to the uncertainties, fears and stress in contemporary childhood, its childlike art may reach for rapprochement with kids but instead get only a quick walk-by.

It's too adult-erated -- too refined, too abstract, too brainy, too beautiful, too scary -- for kids.

Still, P.S. 1's marketers couldn't resist the temptation to boast, in the exhibition brochure, that "Warm and Fuzzy" was designed to "intrigue, delight and educate children, and renew the sense of wonder in us all." Fortunately, I had my kids with me at the show and could test its claims.

The verdict? My mini-me experts found the show to be a "great funhouse" overall, but were ruthless in their winnowing of the good from the bad. As it happens, their list of likes and dislikes was nearly identical to mine.

Having taken kids to contemporary art museums for years I know what you can get away with: movement, spectacle, lights, models, the yuck factor, and some fascinating Guiness-Book-of-World-Records-like feat of physical or mental skill. Many of these elements are present in the introduction to the show, the Art Guys' The Big Sneeze, a large sculpture of a nose hanging from the wall of the P.S. 1 lobby. We spent far too long loitering there, waiting for that nose to sneeze -- a spray of water into a pool, greeted with a glorious, giddy yuck!

Further along, in the exhibition galleries proper, are several works that are truly for the kids. Joseph Schneider's Sea of Tranquility is an amazing, ceiling-high model of a tall ship, bedecked with multicolored pennants and rained down on, from a machine installed in the ceiling, by bubbles. Sandy Skoglund's Shimmering Madness is a tableaux in a darkened room of two running figures made from brightly colored jellybeans and posed in front of a wall of vibrating paper butterflies.

Though we were told that the real fleas had died, Maria Fernanda Cardoso's Flea Circus, a kind of big top in a box with all the tiny circus devices, along with a videotape of the fleas doing their act, engrossed us for a time. And, finally, our routine visit for a peanut butter cookie in the cafeteria lingered on and on, as the kids idled in the soft chairs under Takashi Murakami's cartoony balloon Mr. Dob floating overhead.

In static works, it helps to have some sort of dazzling feat of material trickery. David Beck's Dodo Museum, a model of a Victorian greenhouse, is enchanting, with its exterior surface covered in feathers and a skeleton of the legendary Dodo bird inside. Amazingly, the dodo is still an emblem of the idea of extinction in kid lore. Alexis Rockman's "Alphabet" gouache series of magical animals -- "E" is for "Electric Elephant," half pachyderm, half eel -- garnered some intrigued and grossed out attention.

And there was some major yuck factor in Kim Dingle's sculpture Priss, which shows two grumpy girls making a mess with Tuna tins and tossed off diapers in their crib. The Dingle was also a little menacing, as was Tim Rollins and K.O.S.'s Pinocchio, a series of logs with inset glass eyes leaned up against the wall. Finally, Tom Friedman's Untitled (Snow Angel) was fun, given the snow-angel activity during the past winter, and it was amazing, and a bit hard to explain, that just a spill of laundry detergent with the impression of a snow angel in it, was actually "art" that (of course) you could not touch.

Size does matter (the bigger the better for kids) but by and large the whole body of art that deals with scale must be a concern of adults thinking back on childhood, and not of kids themselves, because most of these tiny or oversized works -- by Larry Krone, Tom Otterness, Michelle Segre, Beverly Semmes, Charles Le Drey, Laura Whipple and Daniel Oates, even Bill Scanga's At the Met, an installation along one baseboard with stuffed mice visiting mini-replicas of works from the Metropolitan Museum's American collection -- were passed by unexamined by my charges.

"Almost Warm and Fuzzy" was organized for the Des Moines Art Center by its director, Susan Lubowsky Talbott, and its former curator, Lea Rosson DeLong, and is circulating courtesy of Independent Curators International. Most of the artists selected to represent the trend of infantile art are soundly based in the 1980s and early 1990s, and some of the superstars included, like Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, David Levinthal and Laurie Simmons, are represented by weaker examples of their work. So it's a fun show, but as with many such out-of-town efforts, it looks, from a New York perspective, like old news.


ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.

Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance.