Art & Culture Center Deconstructs Puppet Shows

Jeanne Jaffe's "Alice in Dystopia"

“Personify,” the imaginative, if demographically muddled, summer exhibition at Hollywood’s Art & Culture Center, is what happens when childhood whimsy is spiked with adult preoccupations.

At first glance, it resembles the cutting-room floor of a forgotten children’s show, with toy soldiers and princes, assembled from found objects, standing in parental watch over dangling marionettes, some human-scaled, others the size of G.I. Joe dolls. You can imagine them all springing to life and partying to tween pop every night after closing time.

Pablo Cano’s Prince of Miami

The pieces are wacky, with hair sprouting and tumbling where hair shouldn’t, and secondhand materials repurposed into figural sculptures—like Pablo Cano’s “Two Alligators,” with tire tread simulating the gators’ bumpy hides, and his “Face Book a Marionette,” a buxom model with a ukulele for a body and twin vanity mirrors for its oversized, Dumbo-like ears.

These are two of a handful of Cano sculptures arranged against a wall like suspects in a police lineup, and the further down the line you go, the freakier they become. “Boogie Man, the Beginning” is a one-eyed menace with forked hands that seems poised to haunt your child’s dreams, and it ends with the “Fidel Castro,” complete with legs like a spider’s and a distorted cubist face that resembles a wood-shop experiment gone wrong.

Works by Pablo Cano

The mission statement of “Personify,” as conceived by then-curator Laura Marsh, is as follows: “When inanimate objects reflect cultural concerns, historical narratives and playful humor, it becomes clear that artists project their impressions of history into figural works to better understand contemporary society.” That’s a lot to consider, but an overarching theme is the darkness lurking behind innocent exteriors.

This exhibition is an attempt to thread the needle between family-friendliness and grown-up subversion, between Jim Henson and Tim Burton. I would argue it fails in its former motivation: Kids are likely to be either confused or, occasionally, scared: Even I was pretty uncomfortable entering the netherworld cocoon of puppeteer Jim Hammond’s “Fantasma” installation, a dark allegory about two spirit dogs attempting to find each other in the afterlife while dodging gruesome haints.

Part of Jim Hammond’s “Fantasma”

“Alice in Wonderland,” a story plenty weird as it is, receives an added jolt of contemporary decay in Jeanne Jaffe’s marionette model “Alice in Dystopia,” which finds Lewis Carroll’s characters navigating a post-apocalyptic wasteland—a series, along with a few other bizarre, symbolist Jaffe sculptures, fresh off its run at Delray Beach’s Arts Warehouse. Other Jaffe works exclusive to the Art & Culture Center show have an eerie resonance, like “Supplicant,” in which a mouthless figure seems to bleed a pair of hands from its eyes, connected by rubber tubing.

Jeanne Jaffe’s “Supplicant”

Videos complementing the puppet- and sculpture-heavy exhibit include Jaffe’s “Tesla’s Dream,” a poetic, hallucinatory animation about the titular scientist and—I think—his attempts to harness free energy—and Gili Avissar’s “Suitcase.” In this colorful time-lapse video, the artist lies atop a pile of clothes—costumes, really—and proceeds to put all of them on, motley layer by motley layer, like a superhero losing her marbles.

It’s an amusing piece of absurdist performance art that, once again, turns some dark and stifling corners, as when the figure appears to be almost suffocating under a full-body suit.

“Personify” may project the air of a puppet show, and it even concludes with a “make your own sock puppet” workshop. But if it gives your little one nightmares, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

The exhibition runs through Aug. 18 at Art & Culture Center, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood. For information, call 954/921-3274 or visit artandculturecenter.org.