The viewer who might wince at the prospect of an art exhibition about dolls is in good company.

There is, to begin with, the creep factor: dread in the pit of one’s stomach elicited by the mere suggestion of the uncanny valley, that fraught ontological space between life and its imitation. And as a subject for scholarly engagement, a child’s plaything seems almost laughably low-brow. 

But “Disturbing Innocence,” judiciously installed at Manhattan’s FLAG Art Foundation by Hamptons-based artist Eric Fischl and on view through January 31, 2015 is refreshing and inventive despite its unpretentious, and uncomfortable, conceit. 

Featuring more than 50 works by a sprawling roster of contributors—including Charles Le Dray, Louise Bourgeois, Henry Darger, Inka Essinghigh, David Salle, Will Cotton, and Hans Bellmer, among many others—the show purports to explore the diverse biosphere of artistic engagement with surrogates: more specifically, with mannequins, toys, robots, and dolls. 

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"Scorching Sun" by Inka Essenhigh, 2001. Enamel on canvas, 72 x 74 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

"Scorching Sun" by Inka Essenhigh, 2001. Enamel on canvas, 72 x 74 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

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"Brittle House" by Will Cotton, 2000. Oil on linen, 36 x 36 inches. Collection of the artist.

"Brittle House" by Will Cotton, 2000. Oil on linen, 36 x 36 inches. Collection of the artist.

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The bulk of the sculptures, drawings, paintings and photographs on view are necessarily figurative in nature—but Fischl has notably eschewed organic form for the first wall that greets viewers when they exit the elevator on the ninth floor. Providing a kind of opening salvo to the show, this horizontal suite of images offers seemingly innocuous visions of suburban domesticity: houses on a hill; houses by the road. Almost entirely devoid of life, the works seem to function as architectural symbols of the show’s theoretical armature, rather than as variations on its theme. 

Consider Gregory Crewsdon’s 2001-2002 photograph Untitled (Empty House). A horizon line of flat, low mountains is foregrounded by darkened tract houses abutting some rural road. The only suggestion of human occupancy shines forth from the windows of an under-construction two-story—but the light reveals emptiness inside, unhung white walls. A single flash of color is supplied by the chalky pink insulation lining the garage. The rest is gray: gray dirt; grey plywood; a rolling gray sky of grayer-yet clouds. 

Crewsdon’s homes aren’t dolls—although meticulously staged, this location actually exists in the world—but they might as well be, stripped as they are of any signs of life’s residue. He gives us veneers, paradoxically polished to approximate the kind of messiness we might recognize as human, but in so carefully orchestrating his scenes to emulate life, he zaps the life from them. It’s architecture as empty shell, constructed for the eyes of an audience and existing primarily as a receptacle for a viewer’s imaginings.

That human tendency to fantasize and project comprises the conceptual marrow of the exhibition. Rounding a corner, viewers are confronted with a flurry of waxy skin; splayed limbs; glossy, blood-red lips and plush torsos. Here is a room devoted to artists who have seized upon our desire to replicate life in our toys—and then twisted it, creating images and objects that draw attention to those impulses by manipulating our expectations. 

Rather than discovering in these artworks the idealized visions of life that we anticipate, we find something just left of center. James Croak’s ashy gray Dirt Baby (1986), hung on the wall like a canvas, is a perverse distortion of a sweet baby doll. In place of soft peachy flesh and rosy cheeks, Croak’s infant has cracked-black skin like petrified wood and is made entirely in cast dirt, more rotting corpse than plastic toy. 

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"Dirt Baby" by James Croak, 1986. Cast dirt, 15 x 9 x 5 inches. From the collection of Barbara Bloemink.

"Dirt Baby" by James Croak, 1986. Cast dirt, 15 x 9 x 5 inches. From the collection of Barbara Bloemink.

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Hung across the room, a suite of 1950 photographs by Morton Bartlett presents realistic young girl dolls posed in disturbingly naturalistic positions. One leans casually against the doorframe, while the other is seated on the floor, head cocked to the side and hand on hip, scolding a stuffed puppy. 

But something is awry. The first doll, which has jet-black hair and almond-shaped eyes, is entirely naked aside from a straw hat and a floral lei: female figure reduced to signifiers of sex and ethnicity. The other sits in a short dress with her legs spread open toward the dog, provoking uncomfortable assumptions about the dynamic between owner and pet. 

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"Polynesian Girl Naked with Lei and Hat" by Morton Bartlett, 1950, printed 2012. Unique digital print, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Marion Harris, NY.

"Polynesian Girl Naked with Lei and Hat" by Morton Bartlett, 1950, printed 2012. Unique digital print, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Marion Harris, NY.

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"Young Girl with Bow and Dress and Stuffed Dog" by Morton Bartlett, 1950, printed 2012. Unique digital print, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Marion Harris, NY.

"Young Girl with Bow and Dress and Stuffed Dog" by Morton Bartlett, 1950, printed 2012. Unique digital print, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Marion Harris, NY.

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The next gallery erupts into mounds and lumps, voluptuous curves and salacious angles. This is the pulsing heartbeat of the show, where testosterone whips passion into frothy action and dolls and mannequins are presented as surrogates for human relationships, of both the romantic and sexual persuasions. 

Carroll Dunham’s Red Studies Itself (1994) sets the pace: a crimson-colored highway of blood platelets, a seething mass of organic genetics being propelled through the pathways of desire. This is echoed in George Condo’s bubblegum pink serenade to animal instinct, Embracing Lovers (2009), which presides over the room like a mantelpiece. 

Etched in pastel, oil and charcoal on linen, the painting’s two forms are entwined in the thrusts of love, their faces contorted into Baconesque masks of monstrous lust, teeth bared, tongues rolling in wide-open mouths. Nearby, Hans Bellmer’s La Toupie (1938) is a teeming mass that rises from its pedestal like a mushroom cloud—a painted-bronze homage to the breast, all soft undulations and pert nipples.

Offering an aesthetic and conceptual counterpoint to this mess of hormones, a quiet 2004 sculpture by Louise Bourgeois is installed across the room from Bellmer’s mammary explosion. Perched high on a pedestal in a glass vitrine, two stuffed dolls in pastel-pink fabric—a man and a woman—face each other chest to chest, pressed up close in intimate rapture. 

Titled Couple, the sculpture might represent a paragon of romantic human entanglement, preserved, as it is, like a rare and precious specimen inside four walls of glass. But a closer look reveals these tender lovers to more closely resemble a patchwork quilt of loosely woven parts, their pink stitches raw and visible. 

Bourgeois has left the process of fabrication transparent: laying bare for all to see the seams inherent to the construction of fantasy. 

BASIC FACTS: Disturbing Innocence, curated by Eric Fischl, continues through January 31, 2015 at The FLAG Art Foundation, 545 West 25th Street, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10001. FLAG will be closed December 24, 2014 to January 6, 2015. www.flagartfoundation.org.

IN THE HAMPTONS: Panel Discussion at The Parrish - "Dolls and Mannequins at Play in Contemporary Art" takes place at the Parrish Art Museum on December 13 at 11 a.m. The talk features exhibition curator and artist Eric Fischl, Sotheby’s North and South America Chairman Lisa Dennison, Child Psychiatrist Robby Stein, and FLAG Art Foundation Founder and art collector Glenn Fuhrman. The Parrish Art Museum is located at 279 Montauk Highway Water Mill, NY 11976. www.parrishart.org.

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Copyright 2014 Hamptons Art Hub LLC. All rights reserved.

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