Puppet Masters

Meryl Streep gives the eye to a dummy in Laurie Simmons's The Music of Regret.
Courtesy of CAMH

I may be in the minority, but I think puppets are pretty freakin' creepy. There is something unsettling about things that aren't alive behaving as if they are — case in point, the demonically possessed Snuggle Fabric Softener bear. Fellow puppet phobics beware, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is packed with puppets for an exhibition called — what else? — "The Puppet Show." Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, the show features work by artists incorporating puppets in the broadest, as well as the narrowest, sense of the word.

Numerous works incorporate actual puppets. Probably the best-known puppet-based contemporary artwork, Dennis Oppenheim's 1974 Theme for a Major Hit, greets you as you walk into the exhibition. The piece features five automated marionettes clad in dark suits, all created in Oppenheim's likeness. Every 15 minutes or so, a soundtrack of the artist singing "It ain't what you make, it's what makes you do it" plays, and the puppets — the artist's performing surrogates — begin to frantically tap dance, seeking to entertain the audience.

The perennially creepy ventriloquist dummy (ever see Magic?) is the subject of Laurie Simmons's photographs. A color still from her 2006 film The Music of Regret shows a group of five boy dummies surrounding a woman with long dark hair, a ventriloquist's dummy come to life, played by Meryl Streep. The "guys" look like the "Danny O'Day" dummy I had as a kid; they're generically clean-cut, with snub noses, disconcertingly red lips and molded plastic hair parted like Richie Cunningham's. The dummies — er, guys — read as dorky, interchangeable guy "types." One wears a Hawaiian shirt with parrots; another sports a sport coat; another is clad in a plaid shirt. Streep gives the eye to a dummy in a tux; we only see the back of his oddly shaped head, but we know he has the same blank smile as the rest of his posse.

The puppet mother lode is housed in Puppet Storage, a plywood room that resembles a big wooden shipping crate. Inside the room, puppets and puppet-related objects are displayed on shelves behind chicken wire. Designed by artist Terence Gower, it looks like some kind of puppet Gitmo, and I'm not sure that's intentional. The objects within were loaned by various artists, as well as by the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut. There are all kinds of funky things inside — an old Richard Nixon puppet, antique marionettes, Balinese shadow puppets...Among the cache of puppets is a collection of weird plastic hand puppets also used in Simmons's film, including a policeman, doctor, nurse, boy and girl. The puppets have saturated colors (Simmons doctored them with paint) and emanate a kind of vintage wholesomeness. They look like escapees from a 1970s Baptist television show for kids. Talk about creepy.

Other artists create sculptural riffs on the puppet. Louise Bourgeois — yes, she's still alive — has some of the most evocative work in the show. Born in 1911, Bourgeois uses vintage fabrics (I'm thinking they were new when she got them) to create sculptures for an untitled 1996 work. Four "figures" hang from four metal arms radiating from an iron stand. The tightly stuffed fabric shapes vaguely reference bodies. A wonderful, swirling black-and-white print creates a narrow-waisted, armless torso; black lace is fashioned into a heart-shaped bustline with a full skirt; beige nylons are layered and stuffed to form a tube with small round, breast-like protuberances. The dangling mutant forms feel like relics, giving off a mournful blend of nostalgia and tragedy.

The Bourgeois piece is shown on a platform along with works by several other artists. I don't know if this is such a good idea, as the other work — even Kiki Smith's — pales in comparison. Smith's white plaster casts of disembodied arms and legs are suspended over the platform by ropes. Yeah, they reference puppets, but alongside Bourgeois, they feel literal and simplistic.

Bourgeois's 1985 Henriette is a far more disturbing take on a limb. It's a jointed bronze leg so smooth, dark and polished, it looks like burnished wood. The leg hangs from the ceiling like a ham, its thigh thick and elongated, with a stick-like calf and narrow foot. It's as if someone butchered a giant marionette.

Video is a big part of the show. There are four screening rooms that seem to be repurposed from the CAMH's last show — the "Cinema Remixed & Reloaded" video extravaganza. Video audio was a problem in that show, and it's a problem here. It's pretty much always going to be a problem when you show multiple videos in a gallery. Things are fine in the screening rooms, but the sound is problematic in most of the screening "cubicles," also designed by Terence Gower. They resemble upended packing crates — an allusion, I guess, to a traveling puppet show — but arranged in a line, the audio spills over and is hard to follow. A small bench is placed right in front of the screen in each, but headphones would be good. And with some of the longer videos, it would be good to have them in a larger screening room.

At 90 minutes, Ubu and the Truth Commission needs to be moved out of the crate. The 1997 video of a performance by the South African Handspring Puppet Company is a tour de force using human actors, puppets and animations by artist William Kentridge to blend elements of Ubu Roi with post-apartheid politics. Too bad you can't really hear it, and there is only room for you and a close friend to watch it.

It's a pretty big time commitment to watch all the video. About the best you can do is physically channel surf by moving from bench to bench and room to room. There's certainly a wide range of work to choose from. In his 2002 video, Live Under Hypnosis, Matt Mullican is a human puppet at the hands of a hypnotist who instructs him to make art. Then there's Guy Ben-Nur's 1997 Karaoke. I initially missed this one in the video lineup, but I caught it on my third visit. The artist sticks two goggle eyes on the end of his penis and turns it into a three-eyed wonder worm that convincingly "lip-synchs" the Connie Francis song "Lipstick on Your Collar." You become less aware that it's the head of his penis, and the whole thing becomes kind of cute. Seeing the "brain" behind guys getting "lipstick on their collar" singing about it in a high-pitched girly voice is certainly ironic.

In Colloquy (2004), two videos shown on side-by-side screens, Cindy Loehr goes minimal as well, but she uses slightly less intimate body parts to create her puppets. Loehr stuck two rhinestone "eyes" on the side of each hand and used her thumbs to create the mouths. One hand delivers a monologue about the hands' relationship, while the hand on the other screen responds with various expressions — grimacing, pursing and quivering lips and gaping in surprise. The range of emotion you can get from your thumb and forefinger is amazing. It's a nice, tight, amusing piece.

There are other video highlights. Pierre Huyghe's marionette film about Le Corbusier is elegant, if lengthy. Christian Jankowski's witty Puppet Conference (2003) presents a puppet panel discussion (Grover and Lamb Chop are present) in front of a puppet audience. I didn't see Nathalie Djurberg's three videos in their entirety (apparently they're supposed to be offensive), but her stop-motion animation and the swirling clay features of her puppets are fascinating. The figures crawling through the underbrush in the artist's 2005 Fragonard riff, The Swing, are amazing.

The show does have its share of less interesting selections in which "Hey, it's got a puppet in it!" seems to have been the primary reason for their inclusion. But as a whole, "The Puppet Show" is intriguing...and creepy.

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