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'Pretty baby' exhibit explores childhood

From a sculpture of a pigtailed girl with four eyes to a photograph of a self-conscious teenager on the beach, works in the “Pretty Baby” art exhibit demonstrate that childhood can be anything but simple.
John Baker
John Baker of Dallas holds his 3-year-old daughter Maya as they look at a fiberglass, wood, and fabric sculpture entitled "Dogs From your childhood" by Yoshitomo Nara that is part of the "Pretty Baby" exhibit at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.Donna Mcwilliam / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

From a sculpture of a pigtailed girl with four eyes to a photograph of a self-conscious teenager on the beach, works in the “Pretty Baby” art exhibit demonstrate that childhood can be anything but simple.

The exhibit features the creations of more than a dozen artists from five countries — paintings, photographs and sculptures, and even 1970s home movies and a Claymation video. It runs through June 24 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, its only appearance.

Museum curator Andrea Karnes said she created the show after studying how artists’ images of children changed through the centuries. Since the Renaissance, youngsters had been portrayed as pure and idealized, but in the mid-20th century they began showing up in art in more realistic and sometimes controversial ways.

“It’s not a show to represent sweet, innocent images of children; the pieces show the complexity of childhood,” Karnes said. “There are works that are tender, painful. Rarely do any artists represent innocence without irony.”

The title is from the 1978 film about child prostitution starring Brooke Shields, but only a few pieces in the exhibit are edgy, Karnes said. It features works from 1992 to 2007.

Rineke Dijkstra’s compilation, “Bathers,” photographs of an American teenager wearing a pink ruffled bikini and a Belgium girl in a more modest, one-piece bathing suit on different beaches, show that despite their cultural differences, the girls seem to share teen angst, Karnes said.

“To me, Dijkstra has this uncanny way of using straightforward photography but revealing the exact moment almost between adolescence and adulthood,” Karnes said. “And even though they’re these sort of frontal classical poses, they reveal this mix of pride and vulnerability and a lot of the things we feel at this age.”

Popular and influential Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara created an acrylic on canvas piece, “Thinker,” just for this show. Several more of Nara’s paintings of children, with enormous eyes and straight mouths similar to anime characters, also are featured.

Another room showcases Nara’s fiberglass sculptures of puppies on stilts — which is 5 feet high, 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep — and a food bowl on the floor below. Karnes said the artist, who as a child may have witnessed his puppy’s death, is trying to show that when the dogs are tall enough for drivers to see them, they will probably starve.

“Like so many Japanese artists, he uses cute to an extreme ... and pushes it so that we actually see the flip side, the dark side,” Karnes said. “There’s always this irony within the language of cute in Japanese art.”

The exhibit features half a dozen oil paintings from another Japanese artist, Makiko Kudo. Her large, brightly colored pieces that include a swimming cat and penguins in a forest show a child’s imagination and happiness — but also loneliness.

One room features wood paneled walls, a shag rug and gold furniture as two home movies from the 1970s play side-by-side. Artists Sanford Biggers, who is black, and Jennifer Zackin, who is Jewish, showcase similar scenes from their middle-class childhoods — birthday parties, piano concerts, amusement park trips — to reveal the lack of cultural diversity, Karnes said.

What could be the most disturbing piece is Nathalie Djurberg’s short Claymation video, “Florentin,” of a man playing with and then spanking two girls, who then beat him on the head with a baseball bat until he bleeds.

“There are overtones of abuse and pedophilia, although it isn’t shown,” Karnes said.

Margaret Meehan’s sculptures of children with abnormalities — including a girl with four eyes and conjoined twins with no mouth — are in a room resembling a Victorian parlor. It symbolizes the awkwardness of growing up.

A self-portrait of photographer Catherine Opie breast feeding her son reveals a tender moment, but also stirs other emotions because her chest still bears a “Pervert” scar after she carved the word for another self-portrait to symbolize society’s views on gay people.

Loretta Lux’s photographs of children are beautiful but eerie because she has digitally enlarged their heads and eyes and placed them in vintage clothes and unnatural poses. Richard Phillips’ oil painting “Girl Child” — a piece from the museum’s permanent collection — shows the faces of a young girl and an older girl who look nearly identical but have subtle differences.

“The young girl is in certain ways more sultry and womanly than this (older) girl,” Karnes said.