D olls occupy a huge variety of spaces within the human psyche. Sometimes they’re playthings or sources of comfort. Other times they’re deeply creepy, a fact innumerable horror stories have exploited. Used as totems and tokens, dolls are prized signals and reminders of heritage, religion or other cultural affinities. As personal artifacts, they have the power to conjure memories that haven’t been contemplated in years, even decades.
But no matter the context, dolls are art, and that’s the essential frame through which the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, at The John Slade Ely House (51 Trumbull Street, New Haven), presents the recently opened Doll-Like: An Exhibition and Community-Curated Doll Collection. Once an elegant residence, the Ely House has for the last five decades been an elegant non-profit art gallery, exhibiting work by “contemporary regional artists” in juried and non-juried shows.
For Doll-Like, as the exhibit’s subtitle implies, figures made by amateur artists—including Afro-Caribbean dolls fashioned by attendees of a workshop led by Elaine Peters at the Dixwell Senior Center, among others—figure into the show, getting space next to works by bonafide professional artists. Indeed, until July 2, any of us can drop off our own “cherished, handmade or collected dolls” to be displayed at some point in the exhibit’s run.
The basic idea behind Doll-Like had been percolating in the mind of Debbie Hesse, one of the show’s curators along with the Ely House’s curator (and all-around showrunner) Paul Clabby, for a decade. Encountering dolls during visits to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana got her thinking about them as “concrete representations of our humanness,” interacting with “personal and cultural identity, gender roles, play, heritage, magic, ritual, childhood and memory.”
The items in the exhibition traverse all those categories and more. As you walk into the Ely House and look to the right, Laura Marsh’s “American Hipster Inflation”—a blonde mannequin in an inflatable pool, looking more like a blowup doll with all the glossy inflated props surrounding her—stares out from behind oversized cat-eye glasses. Walk past her to find a five-seat theater with a video on loop, framed by miniature stage curtains.
Then double back across the main entry hall to explore the densest gathering of dolls in the show. Here there are dolls worthy of a Tim Burton stop-motion project (especially a noodle-limbed figure, whose cheerful polka-dotted dress can’t hide the melancholy in her eyes, by Elizabeth Flournoy); a pair of exhausted string puppets; earthy beaded dolls, hung in the window, by Rashmi Talpade; colorful Algerian wedding dolls by Fethi Meghelli; “Goddess,” a figurine dressed in what appears to be Indian ceremonial garb, and with a pair of antlers sprouting from her back; and a noble-visaged, wild-haired woman (pictured above), wearing faux jewels and a magical-looking blue/purple cloak.
Upstairs on the second floor of the Ely House, the exhibition more clearly emphasizes high art, some of which is deliciously unsettling. Near the top of the stairs, four tight dioramas by Susan Clinard, awash in off-whites and shades of brown, encase bleak-looking farm families from what appears to be 1930s America, with its double-whammy of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Mary Giehl’s “Ivory” series of prints, like X-rays of the infant-type dolls young girls tend to play with, escorts you down the hallway to the right, leading to a room of freaky spyhole dioramas by Tine Kindermann. The dioramas’ scenes are built inside wooden containers, illuminated dimly from within, each with a single eyehole that appears to reveal nothing much of interest—until you achieve the proper angle, anyway. Minor spoiler: one of them is called, “She Later Changed Her Name To Lizbeth A. Borden.”
You won’t get any more spoilers from us today, save one: Doll-Like closes on July 20, in just two months. Get over there and play with it while you can.
Doll-Like: An Exhibition and Community-Curated Doll Collection
at the John Slade Ely House
51 Trumbull St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Fri 11am-4pm, Sat-Sun 2-5pm through July 20
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.