Kids' stuff 

Adult perceptions of childhood generally fall into two categories: the cute and the cool. On the one hand is the romantic ideal of what social historian Gary Cross calls “wondrous innocence,” feelings of magic and awe that adults lose as they grow up. On the other is the desire for the new and the daring, typically held to distinguish the young from the old.

Both perspectives can be found in the work surveyed in Little Rascals: Images of Children in Contemporary Art, an exhibition organized by Linda Ross. This is the second project Ross has presented since she and co-owner Arlene Sefik closed Sybaris Gallery in Royal Oak two years ago. The first, mounted last year at Kaiser Sudan’s studio in Ferndale, paired black-and-white artworks with sculptural interpretations of teapots and spoons. A third is in the works, tentatively titled Ground Up, looking at art that engages the idea of the natural.

Little Rascals includes photography, painting, collage, digital work and craft pieces. The eight artists come from all over the country, with some, such as photographers Julie Moos and Mary Ellen Mark, having international reputations.

The cute and the cool come together in shifting images of girlhood serving as the subject of the brightly colored acrylic paintings by Chicago artist Judith Raphael. “Valkyries #1” shows a couple of contemporary “grrls” hotdogging on dirt bikes. Underneath is a pastel ghost image of a pigtailed lass pushing a scooter, straight out of the 1950 edition of Fun with Dick and Jane. Three black-and-white portraits of different teenagers named Eve present the girls decked out with hip-hop regalia — bandanas, cell phones, portable stereos and bling — all that’s required of and by adolescents in today’s America.

A much darker mood pervades the work of Darrel Morris, who grew up in an unhappy Appalachian family. The artist explores the dysfunctional relationship between a disapproving father and inadequate son. Known for his textile pieces combining hand embroidery and found fabric, here Morris takes a different turn.

In small collage drawings, many of them studies for larger works, Morris uses crude cartoon images and correction-fluid washes to depict scenes of ordinary yet epic struggles. One of the more chilling pieces is “Bulls Diaper Derby,” where a newspaper photo of a crawling baby and two coaxing adults is reworked by hand with India ink and correction fluid. It highlights the mental cruelty parents sometimes inflict on children when goading them on to success.

Adolescent “outlaw cool” is portrayed as not so cool in Mary Ellen Mark’s famous black-and-white photos from the early ’80s of Seattle street kids. Since the days of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, teenage hookers and gun-toting children in urban back alleys are stock images in the documentary tradition. It’s a pitch by the adult world to preserve a zone of innocence for the young.

The color photographs of Melissa Ann Pinney are arguably more sophisticated in terms of the show’s theme. Since she was a baby, Pinney’s daughter Emma has been the object of her mother’s loving eye, as well as her camera’s dispassionate lens. In “Jim’s Room, Bellevue, NE,” the toddler Emma, wearing only underpants, can be glimpsed in a mirror hanging on the partly closed door of a bedroom where a scruffy man stands, looking down on her. In “Roger and Emma,” the girl, again wearing just underpants, rides hobbyhorse astride the lower leg of a man lying back on a porch swing. Taken out of context, these images could be wildly misinterpreted. But, in fact, the child is simply interacting with her family; it’s like a scene from a snapshot cherished in every photo album.

Depending on your perspective, the works can be perceived as voyeuristic mise-en-scènes or Kodak moments. But the point is that, as adults, we view them with our load of cultural baggage, which includes the highly sexualized images of advertising and glamour permeating the consumer landscape.

Among other artists is Cranbrook’s Randy Bolton, who digitally manipulates nostalgic images that he lifts from vintage children’s books, creating allegories of the fearsome world that adults want to flee. The work in Little Rascals generally says more about its adult makers and viewers than it does the juveniles who are its ostensible subject. 

Through Oct. 8, at P.F. Galleries, 213 E. 14 Mile Rd., Clawson. Call 248-892-2985 for information. Vince Carducci writes about art and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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