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A toy show for grown-ups 

click to enlarge OCTOPUS SKATEBOARD: Douglas McKee's entry in the Arts Center's "Toys Designed by Artists" exhibition.
  • OCTOPUS SKATEBOARD: Douglas McKee's entry in the Arts Center's "Toys Designed by Artists" exhibition.

The first hint I got that the Arts Center's 38th "Toys Designed by Artists" exhibit was a notch more mature this year was the fact that so many toys were protected behind boxes of Plexiglas. There was no guard with white gloves stationed in the gallery to turn cranks and pull knobs and so forth, as in yesteryear.

My feelings were confirmed finally when I got to a case that contained small toys in silver, gold and copper, where I spied Miriam Saavedra's clever "Playing With Myself (Dexterity Puzzle Ring)," a ring set with labial folds and a little ball that you could make roll into an indentation where a clitoris would be. I could be wrong, but I don't remember the toy show having fun with vaginas before.

There is also a toy-turned-political-symbol, Joe Casey Doyle's "A Gay Boy Wished," which features the back half of a "My Little Pony" with a long tail of pastel ribbons affixed to the gallery wall.

It's all fine of course — the show is toys designed by artists, after all. It's included several sardonic pieces in the past, including one I bought: A wooden crank toy in which a woman nods "yes" to a man nodding "no," named "The Honeymoon's Over." A little anniversary gift it was. And there was the army tank made of concertina wire and razor blades, and the dead rat pull toy, wheeled feet in air, made of walnut. This year's show is just a little wide of the traditional mark.

There was one toy that gallery-goers can get their hands on: Elizabeth Barenis' "Freebird," a musical toy that when cranked plays "The Shadow of Your Smile" and, like the ballerina atop the little girl's jewelery box, spins a small wooden cut-out that, lit by a small spotlight, casts a shadow of a flapping bird. I would also have liked to play with Kevin Zust's "Brass Rolling Ball Sculpture" to see if the balls really made loop-de-loops on their way to the bottom of the sculpture. And I would like to see if the little coffee cup atop a coffee can ("Wowzers!" by Gary Schott) would spill something.

Rachel Trusty's "The Flock," little wailing faces on stuffed cotton heads set on duck feet first exhibited at the University of Central Arkansas, is somehow wonderful. My favorite works in the show: Wendy Malinow's "Dirty Root Rattle," a polymer carrot/parsnip-type root with multiple eyes and teeth, and Douglas McKee's nearly 4-foot-long "Octopus Skateboard," which is actually a great idea for a toy.

The show this year is in the permanent collection gallery, but it doesn't quite live up to the honor, in my view. There is nothing exquisite in the show, as there has been in the past, though there are finely made things, like Bill Price's .38 Caliber Drake (a decoy with a pistol head, much like his 2010 entry, "Sheriff Rubber Ducky"), Chang Gon Jung's dragon "Pendant for Hoiw," and Dongwong Lee's "Chimpalloon," a silver chimp blowing a silicon balloon. The show runs through Jan. 6.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art announced several new acquisitions on Tuesday: an 1835 painting by folk artist Ammi Phillips, "Woman in a Black Ruffled Dress"; William Wetmore Story's marble sculpture "Sappho" (1867); Miriam Schapiro's "A Mayan Garden" (1964), and Thomas Hart Benton's "Tobacco Sorters" (1942/44). The museum also announced the acquisition of 468 early 20th century prints from a private collection; selections from the acquisition will be on exhibit from Dec. 21 through April 22 in "Art Under Pressure: Early Twentieth Century American Prints."

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