Sunday, December 17, 2017

Stephen Paul Day at Arthur Roger Gallery; Audra Kohout at Soren Christensen Gallery

Christmas has a funny way of recalling the innocent joys of childhood even as the world around us looks less and less innocent. But was it ever innocent? Stephen Paul Day's magnificently crafted, yet totally weird, Queen of Mirth show features oversize recreations of actual vintage children's games and pop culture collectibles from the shadowy recesses of America's past. Day has always mixed nostalgia with nihilism, but never has his work so perfectly aligned with a time when the news consists of incoherent incendiary tweets mingled with a nutty nostalgia for a fairy tale past that never was.
Some of it is almost innocent. The title piece, Queen of Mirth, top, is a vastly oversize replica of a match box with a top-hatted chorus girl tossing party favors to tiny, fawning bon vivants, a scene set off by protruding red match tips. Maybe people were just as nutty a century ago, but at least they had better style. Things take a creepier turn in an oversize replica of a 1950s children's game, Hook-a-Crook, featuring profiles of sketchy looking guys whose features suggest suspicious foreigners. Another children's game illustrated with figures from minstrel shows is decorous yet distinctly sinister.  Day's devious craftsmanship shines in two identical cast iron busts of Abraham Lincoln positioned so they appear to be kissing. The sheer whimsy and craftsmanship of such works make this show visually engaging and aesthetically intriguing – yet it is also a tad unsettling considering that there is obviously no equivalence between Abe Lincoln and any prominent contemporary political narcissists!   

A more reassuring treatment of vintage objects appears in a mini-exhibit of Audra Kohout's sculptures at Soren Christensen. Here castaway objects are reborn as fantastical waifs who seem to dwell in a magical corner of the Victorian imagination – and redemption takes the form of a cast iron music box shaped like a woman with a glass bauble in her belly where butterflies flutter to the accompaniment of tinny, yet ethereal, tunes from the past. Queen of Mirth: New Works by Stephen Paul Day, Through Dec. 23, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.