Twisted toy story

Jennifer Avery's '(numb)Charlottes' at Yellow Peril Gallery
By GREG COOK  |  February 26, 2014

A FANTASY MASSACRE 'Play Date Installation.'

What is it that makes creepy dolls so freaky cool? There’s a lot of shtick in goth art that is so predictable that it’s easy to tune out — spider webs, lace, charred ruins. But the dolls still get me.

In Jennifer Avery’s exhibit “(numb)Charlottes” at Yellow Peril Gallery (60 Valley St, Providence, through March 1), some four dozen papier-mâché and fabric dolls sprawl across a rug, like the remains of a fantasy massacre, in her Play Date Installation. Most are without eyes and arms; legs are bent in painful directions; hair is tangled like rat nests. The dolls’ features seem rotted away or eroded by the elements, or perhaps they’ve been mangled and wounded.

The New Bedford artist luxuriates in this pretty macabre. The show’s title is derived from naked, one-piece china dolls from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — which are themselves said to be named after a folk song about a girl who froze to death when, wanting to show off her attire, she didn’t properly bundle up for a wintery sleigh ride.

Looming on the wall above the dolls is The Grand Ball for (numb) Charlottes, a grid of black-and-white photocopies of doll bodies and legs, like mug shots or mad scientist specimens. In the side room stands Forgetful Charlotte the Duchess, a doll that resembles a baby standing in an adult’s nightgown. It’s as if she’s dreaming or sleepwalking.

MUG SHOTS A detail from 'The Grand Ball.'
Over the past century, dolls have only made rare appearances in fine art, perhaps most notably in the highly sexualized, surreal mannequins of Hans Bellmer. Like the anatomically correct dolls that Morton Bartlett, the late Massachusetts outsider artist, sculpted, clothed, and posed for photos, they can both fascinate and repel in their sweaty perversion.

Avery’s dolls seem more related to a feminist fine art lineage running back through the life-sized fabric figures of Jann Haworth and the wooden totems Marisol Escobar made in the 1960s. Plus Dare Wright’s black-and-white photo-illustrated 1957 children’s book The Lonely Doll, which unsettles with its sense of something sort of human, sort of not, coming alive. Wright channels both the great fun dream of your doll becoming a real girl as well as the disquiet that she might not be that far from becoming Chucky.

Lately a number of local artists have been exhibiting dolls — Xander Marro’s elegant fairy tale ladies; Meredith Younger’s goth ritual ceramic girl-women; Jill Colinan’s small, fabric Frankenstein dolls, both grotesque and very happy in their lumpy bodies. They speak of childhood nostalgia and magic and what it means to be a woman today.

At Yellow Peril, Jennifer Avery’s dolls seem like injured babies. Or toys with their stuffing ripped out, perhaps by the family pet. Either way, seeing them can fill you with the foreboding of stumbling upon a tragedy.

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