by Rebecca Tochtrop

January 14-February 8, 2008
East Central College Gallery, Union, MO

Installation view: "Avatar," East Central College Gallery. Photo by Mark A. Fisher.

The children’s book Rumples and Tumbles Go to the Country1 tells the story of two toy rabbits who leave the comfort of their window display in search of a real live rabbit. It is their first experience with nature, and their journey is full of encounters with unfamiliar animals. With each animal they come across, Rumples, the pink rabbit, is always quick to declare that this animal must be a real live rabbit. Tumbles, the blue rabbit, always replies, “If that’s a real live rabbit, then I’m the Queen of England!” They spend the rest of the time arguing over whether real live rabbits are pink or blue.

Avatar” is the name of a national juried exhibition currently occupying the Art Gallery at East Central College in Union, Missouri. In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word avatāra refers to the descent of God. There is another word, atman, meaning the true self, the self that is one with God because God lives in everyone, the self that is undying. The artwork included in the “Avatar” exhibit asks us to examine the ways in which we manifest our own existence in the nonliving, and leads us to wonder why.

Greg Penner. (l) I Eat Meat, 2006, Ceramic, 10"x10"x16".
Trust, 2006, Ceramic, 10"x10"x16".

Avatar” is an exhibit of dolls. Now, “doll” may seem like a limiting term, particularly when one is actually in the gallery and wondering where they all are; however, when the word doll is taken to mean “a metaphor for the self,” as curator Renée Laferriere described, it is then that all of the lines may converge. This is an exhibit of dolls, but the dolls may be painted, sculpted, photographed, stuffed, or any number of other tasks we undertake in order to substantiate an idea.

Two Best in Show award-winners were selected from the group, for they embodied the accessible and the abstract, the attractive and the repellant. Isabelle Ribeiro’s series of high-gloss photographs capture dolls in lifelike poses and situations. The dolls themselves appear flawless—meticulous care has been taken with their hair, makeup, and clothing. Most of the photographs are strikingly colored, and even the black and white photos are clean and even, avoiding the tendency of giving their subjects degenerative appearances.

Best of Show winner Isabelle Ribeiro. Color Photographs.

One of Ribeiro’s color photographs depicts a doll named Lucia, holding another, smaller doll in her lap. Everything about Lucia is whitewashed, from her hair to her skin to her dress. Lucia’s doll, on the other hand, is small, but her skin glows and her hair is long and auburn. Lucia herself could be any little girl, with any color hair, skin, and dress. It’s the doll she is holding that is given the benefit of color, and thereby her own identity, her own imitation of life. This photograph is just one of many in the series.

The other Best in Show recipient, Leandra Urrutia, contributed what at first glance may be deemed the most un-doll-like art in the show. Her two pieces, Anomaly and Anomaly 8, do not beg to be held or fawned over (which they would fail at if they could try). The figures in the former have the appearance of splitting amoebas. Their infantile features never quite communicate the helplessness of a baby’s form. The figures sit on a pedestal and creep up the wall, evolving. Fingers and toes go missing, an idea that is repeated in Anomaly 8.

Leandra Urrutia, Anomoly 8, 2007, Earthenware, Nylon, Leaves.

All of this leads us to question what exactly about Urrutia’s work could call to mind anything associated with dolls and doll making, given that both works are the opposite of cuddly and comforting, and can’t function as attractive display pieces. Perhaps the answer lies in picturing a Mr. Potato Head doll, sans appendages. The pieces featured in the gallery may frequently deviate from our doll associations, but they remain relevant, relatable. In their own ways, they all belong there, even if we must at times wonder why.

Throughout the rest of the exhibition, an unintentional theme emerged: rabbits. Rabbit ears, rabbit tails, rabbit faces, feet, and fur. Maybe we have lingering Easter Bunny issues, or perhaps we’ve all read The Velveteen Rabbit too many times, but there seems to be an ingrained fascination of rabbits in us all. Whatever it is, we live in an area where the sight of a real rabbit is common, though they always seem to hop away quickly. Holding a rabbit, however, is an uncommon thrill that only petting zoos seem to be able to provide.

Mark A. Fisher. Fan Dancer, 2007, Digital Photograph on Watercolor Paper, 18"x24".

Some of the strongest narrative pieces in the entire show come from Jung-Hwa Lee and are the only pieces to include a full-bodied rabbit figure. Lee’s artist’s statement is direct and concise; it does not read as if the artist is attempting to convince himself/herself of the validity of this endeavor (as so many of the statements do). The artist writes: “These works are [a] story about a girl and a rabbit. Sometimes they can be a bunny girl (girl + rabbit), man and woman, friends or etc…”

Lee’s work
Rabbit + Girl = Bunny Girl! finds two porcelain figures hung in separate wooden boxes. One figure is a rabbit, the other is a girl. A cloudy sky has been painted on the inside of the box in which the rabbit hangs. The outside of his box is red. The box that houses the figure of the girl is painted with clouds on the outside, and red on the inside. Already a boundary has been drawn. We may live near rabbits and other animals, but we do not actually live with them. Even our indoor dogs and cats sleep on the floor, in a special chair, or at the foot of the bed. Every person and animal has space they are welcome to occupy, and duties they must fulfill. The same artist’s piece Red in Love shows the rabbit and the girl lying side-by-side in a furry red house.

Larry Schwarm. Anopia, 2007, Photograph, 16"x20".

Rumples and Tumbles Go to the Country tells the story of two toy rabbits who leave the comfort of their window display in search of a real live rabbit. One toy rabbit is pink; the other is blue. At the end of the story, they come upon a creature with long ears, big feet, a fluffy white tail, whiskers, and brown fur. The animal looks nothing like them, so they decide to keep searching—still arguing over whether the real live rabbit, when they do find one, will be pink or blue.

1. Rumples and Tumbles Go to the Country: A first book of nature by David Lloyd. Illustrations by Gill Tomblin (pub. Readers Digest Kids, 1993).

East Central College Gallery is located at 1964 Prairie Dell Road, Union, MO. 636/583-5195 x2259.