Dennis Hare Asbestos and Demonic Pat Sparkuhl Dollies at Santa Ana Gallery SpaceOnSpurgeon

Doll Parts
Asbestos and demonic figurines at SpaceonSpurgeon

*This article was altered on May 13, 2008.

There’s a very good reason why horrible, grimy doll parts turn up so often in surreal art: Dolls are creepy as all freaking get-out. With their fixed grins and detachable limbs, dolls are great shorthand for youthful innocence horribly corrupted. Smear some dirt on a naked baby doll, pop out one of her eyes, glue a leg where her arm should be, and people will see it and think of the madhouse, of decay, of pedophilia and serial killers and mutation and death. Such images arouse our protective instincts—we want to save these child-shaped little monsters even as we shrink away from the sight of them. All that for something an artist can put together in an afternoon, using props he bought from a 99 Cents Only store, without ever needing to draw a line.

We have seen these demonic dollies in the highly influential photography of the fine artist Hans Bellmer (Google the heck out of him), in the classic animated films of Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay, in the Silent Hill video games. We have seen them a whole lot, and yet they still have power over us.

That being said, with “No Assembly Required,” the current show at the SpaceOnSpurgeon gallery, we’ve just about reached our saturation point with the messed-up little dolls for a while. Pat Sparkuhl’s assemblage sculptures are very well-done, and certainly worth your time. But looking at them, you have the same feeling you get four days or so after Thanksgiving, when you’ve had your fill of turkey sandwiches and turkey soup. Yes, you can still enjoy that one last plate of turkey meatloaf . . . but damn, you’re really looking forward to having some ham this Christmas. Sparkuhl has given us some very potent and well-crafted objects here. But if we can maybe go a year or so without seeing a lot of other potent and well-crafted objects that look like this, we’ll be in a much better position to appreciate the next piece of freaky doll art that comes along.

Sparkuhl is not shy about including messages in his work, and they’re the kind of messages that seem reasonably effective when you’re standing there looking at the things, but rather clunky when you try to describe them. “Boy Toy,” for instance, makes a statement about traditional masculinity and its discontents by taking a little boy doll and draping him with all sorts of little flags and airplanes and tiny soldier figures spray-painted gold. “Let Us Prey” puts a doll and a chintzy, costume jewelry crucifix atop a big pile of bibles that look like Jabba the Hutt threw up on them. Do you suppose Sparkhul is attempting to say anything about organized religion?

But the obviousness of the symbolism doesn’t make it any less effective, and some of his work isn’t quite so easy to figure out. He has a “Telephone Pole” made up of a big pile of ’70s-era phones in bright, Skittles-like colors, with a bunch of false teeth strung up in the mess. It’s baffling, in a good way.

The show also features the art of Dennis Hare, who does incredibly tactile things on canvas, blurring the line between painting and sculpture. When divorced from the 3D element—as seen on the gallery’s website, for instance—Hare’s images are kind of bland. “Sunday Afternoon” looks like something on the cover of the catalog for a community college’s extension courses. But it’s the crinkles and the wrinkles that really bring Hare’s work alive, the way the canvases lunge at you and beg you to run your hand across those rough, lumpy surfaces.

When Hare ventures into pure abstraction, his canvases look like the stuff you find when you’re tearing down a wall: dry, warped wood and ancient, yellowed glue; broken, crumbling plaster and tufts of dusty asbestos. It’s beautiful, but you almost wonder if it’s safe to look at without a dust mask. We can guarantee it’s non-toxic. But it still might get under your skin.

“Dennis Hare and Pat Sparkuhl: No Assembly Required” at SpaceOnSpurgeon, 210 N. Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, (949) 464-0105; Call for hours. Through June 7. Free.

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