Both playful and serious, Toy Stories II is seriously interesting

I don't know about you, but I have a love/hate relationship with the holidays. Sure, Christmas brings out the kid in all of us — well, except for those who celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa — but it also brings out the dread, the depression, the debt and the dysfunctional family dynamics.

Thank goodness, then, that Bill Havu is returning us to that light-hearted aspect of the holiday with Toy Stories II, a sprawling group exhibit at his namesake William Havu Gallery that highlights artists who engage the topic of toys in their otherwise individually distinctive works. As indicated in the title, this is the second iteration of an idea first presented back in the summer of 2011 (one that earned a Best of Denver award). The current show is every bit as good, sharing the same sensibility — which, to be honest, is hardly all sweetness and light — and many of the same artists.

See also:
- Toy Stories at Havu Gallery: Out of the sandbox and into the world
- Photos: William Havu Gallery's Toy Stories II is not just for children

Those artists include the team of Phillip Maberry and Scott Walker, whose work is the first thing visitors encounter; the pair is represented by a group of remarkable mid-sized sculptures that have a decidedly Murakami-esque quality. Maberry and Walker, who hail from California, have created cartoonish creatures in the guise of inflatable pool toys. Like those ubiquitous floating devices, these are finished in bright, flat colors and have what appear to be the expressed seams and gathered pleats found on them. But these sculptures aren't made of air-filled vinyl like actual pool toys are — though maybe the artists should think about doing some limited editions of that sort. No, Maberry and Walker used fired ceramics that have been finished in brightly colored glazes that verge on being garish. And the creatures themselves are preposterous, with flowers for heads and curlicue tails, as in "Scary Sunshine." They are absolutely great.

The sculptures are surrounded by sophisticated conceptual-realist paintings by Michael Brennan, also from California. In the monumental painting "Suspension," Brennan set down an active abstract-expressionist field with lots of heavy smears of paint and rendered a realistic depiction of a Pinocchio puppet dead center in the composition. He then went in again with paint and glazes and partly obscured the figure. Pinocchio, of course, was a marionette who became a real boy, and Brennan shows him as being suspended by his strings, hence the title. But there's also an enigmatic and somewhat unnerving edginess to the piece: the apparition of a child's face peering out at the viewer from behind Pinocchio's leg. "Suspension" is one of nine well-done Brennans on view, all of which present his interesting and personal resolution of a key dichotomy in painting: realism and abstraction.

Toy Stories II, as illustrated by Maberry, Walker and Brennan, is chock-full of oddball pieces, but among the strangest are the weird hybrids of cartoons and Meso-American imagery seen in the sculptures by New Mexico's Max Lehman. The artist has a background in video and web design, and he has written that recent digital graphic design has influenced him. For his ceramics, Lehman uses an elaborate hybrid process combining slip-casting, throwing and hand-building in order to come up with his compelling pieces. An example is "Mayan Telecommute," for which Lehman has constructed a conventionalized car that's covered with Mayan-inspired images. On top is a retro-cartoon man who wears a cap and a T-shirt with a Mayan motif on it and who's grimacing in obvious frustration. The source of his angst? In his hand is a flip phone. In addition to the obvious whimsy of collapsing the Mayan civilization into our own, these pieces have another strength, their incredibly skillful execution. The forms are crisply done, as are the details of the imagery, but probably most important of all are those stunning velvety matte glazes in which most have been finished.

Florida's Esteban Blanco also does small sculptures, but his are assemblages of ready-made and artist-made elements. Blanco is apparently reliving his pre-adolescent days, in which he's interested in playing with guns, trains and tanks — and, of course, torturing Barbie dolls. For "Wild West Train," which has been used as the publicity image for the Havu show, Blanco has set up a short set of tracks on which he's placed an old-fashioned steam locomotive, the kind with a top-hat smoke stack. Coming out of the cylindrical boiler of the engine are the arms of action figures. On one side, it's the arms of the cavalry piercing through; on the other, it's those of the Indians. We can distinguish between them because the former have blue sleeves and are holding swords while the latter are bare and are holding arrows.

Carrying the torch for the idiosyncrasy that is the hallmark of this show are the creepy but unforgettable wood sculptures and mixed-media wall reliefs by yet another California artist, Michael Stevens. These pieces, displayed in the niche gallery under the mezzanine, are crosses between folk art and neo-pop, and they include more or less innocent references with more or less guilty ones. The best example of this is "Uncle Sedley's Holiday," done in carved pine that has alternately been left in a natural state or painted with enamels. The innocent aspects are triggered by the charming style, which recalls mid-century puppets, of the carving of the figure and his dog; Stevens has long been interested in pop-cultural icons like Howdy Doody as source material. The guilty part has to do with how the figure has been posed, bringing new X-rated meaning to the title.

Though all of the above-mentioned artists are seen in depth, Havu has filled out the show with four other artists whose works are sampled. Three are represented by just a single piece. There's noted sculptor Lawrence Argent's "Baby Doll in Door," a wall-hung sculpture of a rusted cast-iron doll attached to a shiny steel panel; Michael Brangoccio's large painting, "Menace of Memory," which depicts a magical staircase filled with animated toys, especially tiny airplanes; and "Salty and Peppy," a mixed-media piece by Suzanne Adan that combines a Prismacolor pencil drawing surmounted by a row of found "Salty" and "Peppy" shakers from the early twentieth century. Finally, there's Laurel Swab, who has done a quartet of small paintings, all of which are eerily anchored by the broken head of a porcelain doll.

Toy Stories II, which runs throughout the holiday season, is crowded with varied work by artists who have embraced a kind of playfulness in their respective mediums and with their subjects. But oddly enough, the real reason the show succeeds is because everything in it is so darned serious.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia