Miss Misery

The Japanese pop phenomenon known as "kawaii" encapsulates the cult of cuteness that's run amok over the last few years, but there are signs of subversion. Take the work of artist Yoshitomo Nara, whose motley cast of tots, with their bloated skulls and vacuous doe eyes, disrobe childhood of all sentimentality. The concept of an infantile macabre isn't new to the States, either. Florida-based artist Kathie Olivas, for example, knows what kind of chicanery and corruption lies behind the eyes of cherub-faced whippersnappers. Her new exhibition, "Bittersweet," draws upon a series of characters she calls the "misery children," miniature adults who dot the landscape of a postapocalyptic world that looks like it came straight of an Yves Tanguy nightmarescape. It's fairy tale surrealism with plenty of sharp edges. The artist was inspired by early American portraiture, which often placed children in the midst of eerily desolate settings, as if to illustrate the intersection of innocence and virgin terrain. But don't expect mugging cuties with missing front teeth -- Olivas's brood are churlish and formidable, like characters from Lord of the Flies. The work, full of plump textures and saturated colors, is darkly beautiful and plenty disturbing -- girls in old-fashioned party dresses and boys in dunce caps scowl and sulk as if disappointed by their Christmas presents, while blobby appendages replace arms and legs and various body parts get torpedoed by inventive torture devices. Olivas's children are also often accompanied by legions of carnivorous beasts that seem to be stand-ins for stuffed animals -- take the creepy bunny in Baptism, who presides over a loathsome bundle that resembles the blighted offspring from Eraserhead.
Feb. 29-March 22, 2008

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