Closing this weekend, Kathy Curtis Cahill’s Make Believe, now at Keystone Gallery, is a potent and poignant look at childhood and the full-on miracle of imagination.
Using dolls as a stand-in for children, these believably life-like, charming subjects dress up as cowgirls, super heroes, a princess, a doctor and nurse. Whether evoking Cahill’s own childhood or that of her son, these doll children are vulnerable, adorable, and haunting. There is magic afoot: within a child’s creative play, and within the creations Cahill herself presents.
Cahill’s earlier exhibition, Memories and Demons, approached a darker side of childhood, dealing with trauma and abuse, and the ways in which children can be all too easily scarred.
The delicate and wondrous world of childhood presented here serves, Cahill notes, as a “direct counterpoint” to her earlier series. “These works are all about the joy, the amazing freedom of the world children have before age five.”
The artist also notes that children may also use their imagination and play to overcome trauma or escape from it, much as she and her brother did as children. A tomboy, Cahill and her brother together played with toy soldiers, shot BB guns, and roamed through the woods. Their own fantasy world provided them comfort and pleasure.
Cahill’s personal childhood play is one thread of the exhibit; a second illuminates the play of her son. Taken together, this series touches the heart with its evocation of childhood pleasures and escapes, and in a gentle way also reveals the touching vulnerability of children’s imagination. Dreams are delicate; they are beautifully wrought fantasies should not be disturbed. There is respect as well as whimsy in her portrayals.
Created primarily outdoors near Cahill’s northern California studio – she also maintains a studio in Los Angeles – the works are shot using natural lighting, and are designed to be as ‘real’ as possible. “I’ve done fake,” she laughs, referencing her past as an Emmy-winning set decorator.
She casts her dolls carefully, and her settings. Some settings take longer to create, as in “Tea Party,” where Cahill changed settings numerous times before ending up in her own home, and changing the color of the background curtains.
Others seemed to find themselves, as in “Grr!” where a small boy in the woods, clad in a bear costume, pays homage to Cahill’s own son’s childhood and playfulness.
Along with her photographs, Cahill features a large scale installation of her doll and stuffed animal subjects as well as other toy props used in her works. She choose to include these actual subjects to inform viewers about exactly what she worked with, as well as to make them more “real” to viewers. She says that for children, dolls and stuffed toys come alive. “They’re the first things we identify after our mothers,” she says.
The artist finds them joyous, and sees them as individuals, her own artistic children.
The entire exhibition space itself serves as a unifying installation, with living room furnishings from the 1950s and 1970s representing the environments in which Cahill and her brother played and those in which her own child played. The photographic works are hung as if they were were family photos, furthering the illusion that these dolls are as real as the children who played with them and believed in them.
If you’ve ever read The Velveteen Rabbit, the story of a toy rabbit that becomes real through the love of a child, or believed yourself in beloved toys “becoming real,” Cahill’s work will heighten that belief.
There’s a lovely intimacy to these pieces, a beautiful, dream-like quality. Just as children play dress-up and become for a time what they imagine they can be, Cahill allows viewers to play along, to see the world with fresh eyes, to see what they can still, even as adults, make “real.”
Cahill’s Keystone Gallery closing will be February 5th. The gallery is located at 338 S. Ave 16, Los Angeles.
- Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke and provided by the artist