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Ooh, Baby

Thankfully, the Installations at Maryland Art Place are Both Juvenile and Delinquent

Tight Knit: Ming-Yi Sung's "Myth of a Crochet World" is a garden of creepy delights.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 1/22/2003

Lisa Dillin, Ming-Yi Sung, and Tabatha Tucker

Maryland Art Place through Feb. 1

Let's say it's a dreary winter day and you leave your crib with the New Year's resolution-worthy intention of making yourself a more worldly person. You assume that a visit to Maryland Art Place will make you an art-smart adult, and then the first thing you see inside the gallery entrance is a white wooden crib more than six feet high. It's so ridiculously oversized that you may find yourself giggling nervously at this gargantuan and, er, infantile joke. Here you wanted to be a sophisticated grownup and instead you're forced to confront your inner child.

But there's more than a big crib to ponder in Lisa Dillin's installation "Cotton Candy Cell," which offers a host of infancy-themed, mixed-media objects. Dillin's playfully disturbing display is but the opening salvo in a three-artist installation exhibit that gets the year off to a lively start at MAP. Yes, you'll come away as a smarter adult.

Taking inventory in Dillin's nursery, the mobiles suspended over the crib would make any baby's eyes go wide, what with the sun, moon, and animal shapes and correspondingly cheerful shades of pink, yellow, blue, and purple. A nearby wall is covered with small painted ceramic toys including rattles and teething rings. On another wall, 15 glazed ceramic baby bottles are mounted in an orderly row. In fact, everything is so cleanly crafted and neatly installed that the effect is of a taxonomy display as much as anything you'd find in a nursery. The groupings of these smaller objects possess a clinical quality that's every bit as unnerving as the jail-cell suggestiveness of that supercrib.

Then there are the "Nipple Balls," three ceramic spheres whose surfaces erupt with--you guessed it--nipples. Two of the balls feature teats like those you'd find on a baby bottle; the third has more human-seeming ones, actually cast from the breasts of the artist and her friends. Nipples are wholesome things, of course, but perhaps not when subjected to such surreal treatment.

So what's the message here? Far from being fun, infancy can be a frightening thing, whether considered from the perspective of parents undertaking that enormously life-altering adventure or the infants themselves entering into a world where they look up from their cribs and try to make sense of primal shapes and primary colors. And infancy tends to be messy for all involved. Witness the pile of diapers that's also part of this installation; at least they're clean.

By way of precedent for Dillin's subject matter, palette, and exaggerated attitude, brings to mind the stuffed toys that Mike Kelley made in the late 1980s, which used deliberately childlike associations to make anything but naive commentary; they also bring to mind the portrait paintings that Lisa Yuskavage did in the late 1990s of pinup-type women, whose overblown sexuality she depicted in cotton-candy colors akin to Dillin's saccharine hues. Is Dillin cribbing from such artists? Not necessarily, but there are affinities.

In any event, it is an installation as jolting as it is silly. My only reservation is more a matter of curiosity as to what would happen if Dillin axed the relative austerity of the piece and really went into overload mode, giving us so many toys and diapers and nipples that terrified visitors immediately would subscribe to the zero-population-growth cause.

If Lisa Dillin conjures up the sometimes unbearable responsibilities involved in bearing children, Ming-Yi Sung wants to rattle male and female viewers alike with her installation, "Myth of a Crochet World." Here, much of the gallery floor has been transformed into a Garden of Eden populated by crocheted figures representing Eve, a goat, and "tree persons" that look like tree trunks with human heads. Her forms are humorously conceived and brightly colored, many sporting both female breasts and male genitalia, and seen all together, they may be enough to make you wonder whether our genetic genesis was fixed or fluid.

Because Lisa Dillin and Ming-Yi Sung are so determined to make you contemplate human nature and nurturing, though, the third artist, Tabatha Tucker, doesn't quite fit. The gallery devoted to her work contains two mattress-sized, velvet-and-foam pillows on the floor. Named "Right Door" and "Left Door," with their brick-patterned fabric they emulate the brickwork of the two doorways that lead from this gallery to the one containing Ming-Yi Sung's crocheted critters. Tucker's concerns obviously are architectural--the installation forces a comparison between her giant pillows on the floor and the gallery's real, assertively vertical brick doorways--and you do get a perceptual workout as you consider how the physical space is dealt with and redefined by this pillowy presence. That sort of exercise is worthwhile as far as it goes, but my eyes constantly were drawn through the real doors and back toward the androgynous figures in the next room. They seem a lot more interesting than Tucker's load of bricks.

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