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Real(ist) dolls 

"Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb."

—Sylvia Plath, from "the Munich Mannequins"


For nearly a century, man made a sublime species of woman — buffed wax mannequins modeled after the real thing, modishly attired for the urban scene. Coveted from the far side of department store windows, the pretty, vacant and powerless lot kept their mouths shut. No whining about suffrage or domestic duties.

Manufactured in Europe and the States from the 1890s through the late 1940s, they looked like a fucking freak show, totally creepy with human hair, gemlike glass eyes and porcelain dentures. Sunlight melted their makeup and they were hollow to the core, but for all intents and purposes, these idols of desire sold sex to the bourgeoisie better than a streetwalker. Window shopping became a mindless leisure activity sedating women, lulling them into a fantasy world as they imagined what life would be like as an impeccably dressed dummy. Outfitted in couture, the sculptures, especially those manufactured in the renowned Pierre Imans Studio in early 1900s Paris, were avant-garde artworks available for all the city to see.

After World War II came cheaper, lightweight plaster and fiberglass mannequins that didn't damage with exposure to the sun, but still looked somewhat lifelike. It wasn't until 1952, when Christian Dior introduced a flat-chested cut of clothing and mannequin-makers everywhere sawed and sanded the busts off their beauties, that the fashion world really began castrating women, so to speak. This style was the harbinger of the hermaphroditic mannequin with spraycan personality popular in recent decades.

Dress forms and other alternatives have all but replaced mannequins in contemporary window displays (at least in cities that haven't demolished their downtown department stores). Instead, our incarnate dolls appear in editorial spreads. A century ago, singular-looking and sometimes even homely dames would sit for artists in the studio so their faces could be immortalized. Today, fashion models emulate mannequins. Check out the recent copy of The New York Times' T Style magazine for evidence of this continuing trend, in which the first 20 pages of ads smack you with expressionless women, posing mechanically like automatons in isolating and otherworldly environments. What does this say about contemporary feminism? We can wear pants, sure, but we choose to act like zombies.

Detroit once had its own Gepetto. In the first half of the 20th century, Harry Blecher owned J.H Blecher Studio, a mannequin-making and repair business located in a warehouse at Greektown's Monroe and Beaubien. Blecher's young apprentice Mario Messana bought the business in 1963, changing the name to Mario's Mannequin Studio, but he didn't continue making the figures. He repaired and delivered them to Hudson's, Crowley's and Winkelman's throughout the Midwest, and carefully piled Blecher's vintage collection of a couple dozen older heads, torsos and disembodied limbs in the closet, including some from the Imans studio.

Time has ravaged their faces. They look like smiling corpses caught between life and death, inspiring an eerily familiar feeling like déjà vu. When photographer Barbara Abel discovered them 10 years ago, during a liquidation sale at Mario's, she related to the beauty that resulted from trauma. Not specifically as a wife or a mother, but as a woman.

"I never realized it would change things so much for me," Abel says, about her portrait series Tragic Beauties. The West Bloomfield resident shot four rolls of film in one afternoon in 1995. Since then, she's become a dedicated participant in the national art fair circuit, exhibiting her work to a general audience and eliciting strong reactions like fear and anger. In a review, a local critic once mistook her photos for images of real women made up to look abused.

Abel's traveled to Ohio, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York shooting private collections of wax mannequins, many of which now sell for hundreds of dollars to more than a thousand apiece. Her photos have appeared in numerous shows across the Midwest and East Coast, including a solo show at New York's Viridian Gallery, curated by Susan Harris, formerly of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her photographs also hung two years ago in the show Guys n' Dolls, in Brighton, England, alongside images by Man Ray and Hans Bellmer.

Surrealists like Ray and Bellmer used dolls to toy with fear, death and desire in a time of Nazism. And later, American filmmakers from the 1950s and 60s confronted the issue of conformity with doppelgängers in science fiction and horror movies, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In 1960, The Twilight Zone aired an episode called "After Hours," featuring a houswife who turns into a mannequin.

This year, the art world has shed light again on the uncanny nature of human-scaled dolls. Reclusive Bostonian Morton Bartlett's family of plaster children, crafted meticulously over a period of several years, has recently gotten ink in the Boston Globe and New York Times, following a show at New York's Julie Saul Gallery. And Canadian artist David Altmejd's bird-headed mannequins at the 2007 Venice Biennale grabbed crtics' attention.

Messana retired more than a decade ago as business declined, but, sitting in a comfy chair in his St. Clair Shores home, says his gut's telling him mannequins are making a comeback. It could be a sign that we are finally ready again, during a time of war, to question rather than deny our mortality, and let death startle us.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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