Saturday, April 18, 2009

Artist's Statement for Playsets series - Rough Draft

The following is the first draft of my statement describing my Playsets series.

There’s a new generation of kids in my family: my nephews and nieces. Part of the ritual of welcoming them into the world has involved multiple trips to the basement, from which my mother has unearthed and unboxed many of the things my brothers and I grew up with. Objects layered in dust and sometimes mold; some things I expected and some I never thought I would see again. Many interesting artifacts have emerged to be sure, but what stood out to me were a group of well used playsets, sitting quietly in the corner of my mother’s living room, waiting to be played with. When I saw them it was as if two wires crossed; I could see them just as I had when I was a kid, just as I had last seen them, and I could see them just as I am now, as an adult, with all the experiences and knowledge I’ve gained since these toys were packed away.

I had an immediate desire to peer into these playsets, not just to see them but to experience the worlds they contained. Chief among them were an old barn and an old firehouse, spaces that mimicked the real world only partially, filling most of the details with cartoonish wonder and enthusiasm. I set about the process of immersing myself in them, and sharing that inhabitation, using the method that seemed the simplest and made the most sense to me: by peering through the lens of my camera.

Before I get too far I should backtrack a little, and explain more about what playsets are. A simple way to think about them is to think of a dollhouse, but to layer on top of that a more diverse range of themes, from occupational to the purely fantastic. Wikipedia defines them as:

Playsets are themed collections of similar toys designed to work together to enact some action or event. The most common toy playsets involve plastic figures, accessories, and possibly buildings or scenery, purchased together in a common box. Some sets during the '60s and '70s were offered within metal "suitcase" containers that also functioned as part of the playset.
First pioneered by metal figure manufacturers around the turn of the 20th Century, usually as military "play" figures with simple accessories, the concept of the playset was further developed by companies like Marx Toys, Superior Toy, Remco, Deluxe Reading, Multiple Toymakers (MPC) and others throughout the Baby Boomer era. Several manufacturers continue to produce playsets today.(1)

I have been predominantly interested in playsets as spaces that people imagine themselves to occupy. In order to facilitate this feeling of being in the space, I’ve avoided the plastic figures that would occupy the playsets in our stead. What we’re seeing here really are the buildings and scenery which provide the foundations for these worlds.

There is a huge history for playsets, and while my focus isn’t on chronicling that history I have been interested in exploring a diverse range them. After photographing several of my own old playsets I began collecting others to include in the project. This includes a restaurant playset from the 1950’s, which is made of paper and folds out from a cigar box. It also includes a tin ‘log cabin’ playset from the 60’s, covered with lithographed scenery. In addition, there’s a space station playset based on the 70’s TV show “Space: 1999.”

Arguably there’s an aspect of nostalgia for these spaces, but my interest is in what these spaces represent, the function they serve, and how it feels to occupy them. I’ve focused on used playsets, things that not only have a history but feels as through they speak to the history of these spaces as well. They show the wear and tear of things that have been played with; torn stickers, scratched plastic, and wrinkled vinyl. These are all playsets that have drawn in kids before, and as they are returned to my mother’s living room, I know they will draw in kids again.

I believe that the appeal of these playsets is born out of the desires of children and adults alike. Many of them depict very ordinary, everyday situations from homes to classrooms and hospitals. It makes sense that parents would want their kids to practice and learn about these areas, and yet there’s often a way in which kids want to play at and take ownership of these as well. The playsets also contain a certain idealization that would appeal to both; bright colors, bold shapes, and clean edges. I’m not so sure that means that these playsets represent the world as we’d prefer it to be, but seeing the enlarged photographs hanging on a wall certainly creates an interesting juxtaposition.

For me, looking at these images is exciting. They offer me a chance to look at the world with a childlike perspective, full of wonderment and optimism. They are wonderful both in their intricate detail and their peculiar abstraction. Tiny clocks have the time of day permanently embossed on them just as beds have the outlines of their occupants permanently indented. Walls are covered with drawings of shelves complete with books, fireplaces filled with crackling flames, and floorboards with mice gleefully running along them. Yet at the same time, looking at these images is saddening. Perhaps it’s that stark contrast between these spaces and the world I know. It could be that these scenes are just too empty without the figurines that usually occupy them. Or it could be that feeling of being a visitor in house in which I no longer live.

1. Wikipedia, Retrieved on April 18, 2009.

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