Manhattan, 2007, Archival inkjet on poly satin
Lydia Venieri’s exhibition War Games: New Photographs at the Stefan Stux gallery in Chelsea has the potential to beguile a viewer through its subversively charming political dissention. Starkly lit images of innocent dolls peer out from their static positions while active scenes of war and terror are frozen in their pupils. Printed on polysatin and stretched like canvas, the material adds a perception of physical depth to the otherwise shallow image while also lending a specifically feminine and frilly connotation to the series. At the same time the satin also conjures an image of a coffin, which alludes to the inevitable deaths that are instilled in the scenes depicted in the dolls’ eyes.
The dolls that appear in War Games are the innocuous and trendy Blythe dolls manufactured by Hasbro. Blythe dolls actually have quite the cult following and Blythe doll photography has emerged as a trend amongst numerous amateur photographers. Gina Garan, one of such photographers, published a book in 2000 titled This Is Blythe that infiltrated popular culture and launched the icon to her current venerated status. The genre of doll photography in general conjures images of the high school student who, in receiving their first high-quality camera, finds it ingenious and convenient to use their toys as subjects. Venieri’s body of work utilizes many fragments of playthings and symbols of innocence as vehicles for social investigation, and the work exhibited at Stux is no different. Previous exhibitions from the same series contained more generic, non-Blythe dolls that presented an overall less trendy voice. The result was more successful in this aspect although the images containing the Blythe dolls are visually, aesthetically, and technically rendered more successfully.
Overall, the small grouping of photographs was understated in their display allowing the work to dominate the space. Only one quality of the presentation was bothersome: the first thing that greets the visitor when they enter the gallery is the ominous wall text. Phrases such as “…genocide and suicide bombings within the innocent gaze of children’ dolls eyes” clearly state what meaning the viewer is supposed to derive from the works before they jump to any original, and therefore wrong, opinions of their own. In fact, even the most ill-informed and un-indoctrinated visitor to the gallery would be able to decipher the obvious meaning behind Venieri’s series. The wall text is completely redundant and unnecessary placed amongst work that has a clear and abrasive voice. It’s almost redundant to even discuss the content of the work in a review seeing as that the message is so blatant: innocent dolls+ images of war= disturbing. It is clear that the images are meant to provoke dissent about the war in Iraq and “the war on terrorism.”
The two most interesting pieces in the show are Explosion and Manhattan. Both seem to be depicting the event of 9/11, but in startling different stages of its occurrence. Explosion, which features the blast of a plane striking one of the towers, stages both dolls with their hands raised to their mouths in shock and disbelief. Devoid of any political leaning, this photograph captures the raw and intense moment when New York City and the country stood still. Manhattan abstractly represents the aftermath at ground zero with one doll turned to her companion seeming to share a secret, hand raised to her mouth in a cupped shape. The content of the secret could be interpreted in a variety of ways. The information or meaning of the secret is concealed from the audience, which in itself contains meaning. The shape of the tower’s skeleton is nearly indistinguishable at first glance, cloaked by a dark and muddy quality of light, alluding that the secret is so sinister it may be unmentionable. The possible significance of the secret could be a retelling of the popular conspiracy theory regarding United States government involvement in the planning of the attacks on the twin towers. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, the inclusion of these two pieces in the exhibition are powerful and their juxtaposition leave more room for interpretation than most of the other images.
Aesthetically, the works included in War Games: New Photographs are multi-dimensional and technically brilliant in their rendering. The socio-political content of the pieces is timely but a bit trite and the use of Blythe dolls is an obvious and in vogue choice. Luckily, the quality of the lighting, the content of the digital manipulation, and the clarity in its printing saves the series from staleness. While the photographs are quirky, timely, and political, Venieri should stick to sculpture and installations.