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Serious playthings in Toy Show no. 32 

click to enlarge RAT ART: Amy Wendland's 'Dead Toy.'
  • RAT ART: Amy Wendland's 'Dead Toy.'
The annual Toys Designed by Artists exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center is a showcase for contemporary craft that loves a good joke. Some of the entries in this juried show are outright toys; most are playfully ironic, even bitingly so. This year’s 32nd annual exhibit finds considerable strength in metal manipulated into such things as a giant insect, a “paper” airplane, alien antennae, balance beam creatures and a crank toy that makes eyeballs wink. Fine wooden pieces are less mordant, with the exception of Little Rock art student Maribeth Anders’ “Higher Education,” the façade of a clapboard one-room schoolhouse on legs so high the steps are unreachable. At opposite ends of the emotional spectrum are the sophisticated and finely crafted “Hopping Push Toy,” a lovely brushed pewter and copper rabbit whose action makes the two-piece bunny move (by Miel Margarita Paredes of Madison, Wis.), and a vicious little tank, “OWtside,” decked out in spiked wheels, concertina wire and miniature sawblades (John Van Horn of Little Rock). In between are Toy show regular Bill Reid’s “Toynado” (a fantastical, tornado-spouting and toothy fish) and Arkansas craftsman Rusty Nuffer’s “That’s Right Cosby” (a grasshopper made of farm tools, including a spring that makes its head go up and down). The Arts Center’s purchases from the show include “Playne” (Clint R. Shaw of Charleston, Ill.), a large copper sheet perfectly folded and cut as paper ripped from a schoolchild’s notebook; and the neat enamel, string and metal creation “Parts for a Toy Theater: Curtain, Sloping Stage, Backdrop and Branch (spring)” (Lauren Wilcox, Little Rock). For the children are rocking horses — or, rather, a rocking Tyrannosaurus rex and a rocking giraffe. The nearly 5-feet-long and 4-feet-high “Rocking T-Rex” (Ronald Sepulski of Harbor Springs, Mich.) bares teeth and tongue and curving tail in silky-smooth blond wood, wood that has been pieced to create stripes and suggest shadow with natural changes in the grain. A red saddle sits on the long-necked “Giraffe Rocker (The Remix)” (by Dot Williams of Asheville, N.C.). Funny toys: Invited artist Chelsea Stone’s silver necklace featuring the head and torso of a woman whose breasts are removable and Colorado artist Marc Horovitz’s crank-toy alien who collapses from smog at a Los Angeles stoplight waiting for the light to change. Not so funny: Californian Eric Culver’s “Ocean Adventure,” a crank toy in which the heads of a man and a woman bob in an ocean of sharks, and which, intentionally or not, recalls the real fate of scuba divers left at sea to die by an incompetent dive boat company some years back. Just plain pretty: Show regular Hal Poth’s “A Float of Duck Boats” pull toy featuring a carved and painted mallard pair, the female’s brown feathers rendered in a tiny checkerboard style. This writer’s favorite of show (though “Higher Education” has its temptations) is the clever and weirdly beautiful “Dead Toy” (Amy K. Wendland of Durango, Colo.), which is a walnut rat on its back, its feet curled over little bone wheels, suggesting that in life, right side up, it was a pull toy. (It is now a drag toy, with string emanating from the rat’s sheepskin body.) A price list is available on request. The show runs through April 17. “In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite,” erected in gallery space that normally holds the permanent collection to make room for Tabriz, features fragments of second century frescoes and artifacts in glass and metals, with an accompanying 17-minute video to put things in context. The frescoes’ pigments are from the earth — red and yellow ochres and the copper-like mineral that produced blue — but are used to depict the unearthly, the ancient gods and goddesses of Rome. That the Romans surrounded themselves with their own mythology suggests less a taste for nostalgia (like we exhibit when we choose toile to cover our chairs or Willow Blue to set the table to recall a finer time) than a contemporary confidence in their destiny as empire builders. The exhibit tends to produce fragmentary conclusions such as that — bits and pieces of insight — and a hope that archeologists will get the funding they need to get more of the town, covered in volcanic ash, uncovered. This reporter could have used more substance, something more to hold on to. Still, if one can’t get to Italy, it’s nice to have Italy come to the Arts Center. Don’t overlook the lamp carved to look like two sandaled feet. The exhibit runs through April 3.
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