Not quite child’s play

Almost Warm and Fuzzy at the Crocker

Alexis Rockman, “Croctopus (Crocodillius calamari),” watercolor and ink on paper, 1996.

Alexis Rockman, “Croctopus (Crocodillius calamari),” watercolor and ink on paper, 1996.

There are times in our lives when it seems important to slow down, take an inventory of our life experiences to date and reflect. Since September 11, it seems many of us have had this awareness of a profound life change. To navigate such difficulties, the show Almost Warm and Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art at the Crocker Museum might help in the healing process. And, as much as we might hate the idea of the “feel-good movie” the show transmits a good feeling that is best shared with family, friends and—especially—children.

Featuring 31 internationally recognized artists whose work manifests in every medium, material and size available, this show is a fantastic smorgasbord of visuality. Almost all—and nothing—is left to the viewer’s imagination. This, normally, would seem to be a tall and precarious order, but here it works. Most of the artwork uses the theme of childhood to demonstrate ways in which many contemporary artists aspire to be highly creative and whimsical, while balancing those aspects with their more critical sides. It demonstrates just how not obscure, and elitist contemporary art can be.

For example, Charlie White’s photograph, “The Inland Empire,” depicts a pipe-wielding woman squaring off against a rather frightening creature with sharp teeth and a hungry look in its eyes. The image looks like a scene from a cheesy horror flick shot on some Hollywood back lot; it suggests how images from mass media creep into our lives and stay there. White’s photograph also puts forth the idea of the American hero or, in this case, heroine against the insidious “other”—which is more likely to turn out to be ourselves rather than some deranged-looking alien monster.

Laura Whipple’s sculptures deal with the slightly “off” in our perceptions by playing with scale and missing information we normally take for granted. In one piece, “Cat Mummy,” she reconstructed the innocent pink stuffed pussycat into a limbless artifact that stares, unaware of its quadriplegic dilemma, ultimately forcing us to consider our own tendency toward the limitations of experience we often possess as adults, but not as children. In another piece, “Tea Party,” Whipple addresses childhood directly: how size plays such an important roll in early perceptions, how scale provides a sense of awe and fantasy during play that we often become less aware of as we get older.

British-born Marc Quinn, one of the U.K.’s new bad-boy artists to emerge in the ’90s, was in the hotly scrutinized “Sensation” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which New York’s Mayor Guiliani attempted to close. Quinn’s sculpture, “I Thought I Was the Sun King: Nervous Breakdown,” with its visually compelling fluid-like “stop-action” imagery of dripping colored goo, is hauntingly exciting and puts forth a more frightening notion of the psychological stress that modern society brings upon us. It also reminds us of how scary images and nightmares are just as much part of our childhood imagination as the cutesy and innocent are.

Takashi Murakami’s large-scale, inflated balloon sculptures installed in the ballroom compel by playing with space and with the notion of where we place and view art. The objects contrast well with the Victorian décor, and demonstrate how much aesthetics can change in a century. Colorful and humorous, they cull their graphic imagery from popular cartoons and video games and possess an ominous presence that’s both scary and wonderful.

Almost Warm and Fuzzy offers some 40 pieces that deal with the many themes of childhood. It’s an exciting and comprehensive exhibit. You can come away really feeling like you have actually both enjoyed yourself and learned something while not even knowing it.