The Darker Side of Playland:
Childhood Imagery from the Logan Collection

By: Heather Whitmore Jain
Curatorial Associate, Department of Painting and Sculpture

Adults are often tempted to look back on childhood as a time of uncomplicated innocence. Yet many contemporary artists present a more nuanced view, often exposing the darker side of early life experiences. These paintings, sculptures, and photographs present disturbing undercurrents in childhood imagery, a trend in art today that Vicki and Kent Logan have recognized and developed as a theme in their collection.

While adults tend to associate toys with happiness and enjoyment, they also can be very unsettling. Dolls can teach stereotypical gender or cultural identities, as David Levinthal reveals with his Barbie doll photographs. Cartoon characters can appear monstrous. The holes piercing Joyce Pensato's Minnie Mouse and the looming presence of Gottfried Helnwein's Mickey Mouse, for instance, evoke the brutality of animated cartoons. The simplified forms and exaggerated scale of works such as Takashi Murakami's Mr. DOB make even adults feel as vulnerable as a small child caught in an oversized world. The works in this exhibition manifest a combination of these and other strategies to reveal the complexities of children's responses to a world created for them by adults.

These artists portray the threatening perils underlying the superficial allure of childhood imagery in popular culture, often by retrieving their own early life experiences or by picking up on the negative elements of toys and cartoons. A physical object might be the autobiographical connection, such as the dolls in Laurie Simmons's photographs, which are like the ones she played with as a girl. The association might be psychological; Nara's paintings and sculptures effectively convey the loneliness and alienation he felt growing up. The prevalence of mice indicates that they figure as strongly in many artists' memories as they do in children's consciousness today due to Mickey Mouse's global marketing and popularity. Many of the works reveal the latent violence and sexuality of dolls and cartoons that appeal to kids. Thus, this exhibition de-emphasizes the sweetness of childhood in favor of its more troubling aspects.

For further information on this exhibition, please refer to the following source(s):

SFMOMA press release: SFMOMA Explores the Naughty and the Nice: Third Logan Rotation Probes the Darker Side of Playland