Images of dolls evoke spirit and culture

September 06, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

"Looking back on our childhood, we can all remember interacting with dolls," writes curator Sarah Tanguy in her essay accompanying the show "Soul Mates" at the University of Maryland College Park. Well, looking back on my childhood, I don't remember interacting with dolls at all.

I bring that up only to make the point that I found this show, which features six artists who use doll-like figures in their works, valid and interesting -- even though I'm totally doll-deprived and have never consciously thought of dolls as "the repository and construction of cultural values," as Tanguy writes. And that's the way it should be, for good art transcends limitations of culture and experience.

E. H. Sorrells-Adewale's installation, "What I Saw the 3rd Time I Looked," succeeds on multiple levels. Taken from the experience of being present when his two children were born, it incorporates dolls and doll-like parts (heads, hands) in a complex wall and floor piece involving natural and man-made elements.

It manages to suggest that children are the product of two parents, of nature, of a culture and of all humanity -- thus, that the individual has a particular identity that embodies many influences. As such, it's a moving work intellectually. But it's also a quite beautiful visual entity -- especially when seen from a distance -- thanks to its colors, textures, composition and the interaction of its parts.

Osvaldo Mesa's "Magic and Original Sin" also makes a profound impression. It consists of a draped and painted cloth hanging over a wooden armature on the wall, with small stick-like dolls attached to the piece. The work refers to the shrines of Mesa's Afro-Cuban religion, so those who share or have knowledge of that religion may respond to it on a highly specific level. For those who do not, its physical presence nevertheless has an unmistakable power.

Mesa combines his cultural background with his training as an academic painter, and it is the blending of these quite different elements that makes his art reverberate.

Phyllis Audrey Wilson positions her rope-wrapped dolls at various points in her landscape-like installation called, as a whole, "Where Spirits Reside." The dolls are given names that identify their attributes. They stand for aspects of the individual and of life -- spinner of dreams, keeper of self-doubts, guide for the journey -- and it is gently reassuring to come upon them while wandering through the installation.

Richard Cleaver's meticulously crafted and extremely detailed constructions take the form of icon-like historical tableaux centering on female royalty. The two more elaborate ones here deal with Marie Antoinette and the wives of Henry VIII. At first they seem remote from everyday life of the late 20th century, but they remind us that like those unfortunate women, none of us is entirely able to master fate: to think that we are would, perhaps, be the most dangerous thing we could do.

The works of Irma Francis and Stephen Lee do not fit the subject matter as well as those of the other artists and consequently look somewhat out of place. So "Soul Mates" is not as consistent as it might be, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.


Where: Art Gallery, Art-Sociology Building, University of Maryland College Park

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (to 9 p.m. Wednesdays), 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Oct. 8

$ Call: (410) 405-2763

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