Toy story

Exhibit spaces of long standing develop reputations for showing certain kinds of work. An informed visitor to the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway will expect to see well-turned pieces of pottery, furniture, glass or weaving.

But not, perhaps, a three-armed, snake-handling doll.

The usual skill, craftsmanship and good design aren’t sacrificed in the center’s current exhibit, The Figure as Object, which gives us dolls as art. It’s impeccably installed.

But this isn’t your mother’s doll show.

Guest-curated by Gail Brown, Figure features works gathered from all up and down Appalachia, the pieces carefully chosen as projections of the human condition, embodying issues of health, age, memory and alienation.

Pretty poison

Two of the works deal directly with the practice of snake-handling, that death-courting faith test still alive in some isolated churches. Jon Brooks’ “Snake Man, Fear and Temptation” is a twig figure painted white, holding another snake-like twig painted black.

Snake Man has a third appendage protruding from the back of his trunk — a primal leftover from the days when we had tails? A symbol of the Trinity? Or simply a way to make the figure stand?

“The Snake Handlers,” by Steve Armstrong, is as complex as Brooks’ piece is simple. Designed like a kinetic toy, it shows a carved wooden figure moving toward church pews, where a worshiper in overalls kneels beside a woman collapsed in ecstasy on the floor. Meanwhile, a bright-blue dog, ears flying and red tongue lolling, is being chased around the congregation by an orange cat.

And a skeleton mans the pulpit.

As dark as these works are, though, they hold only a fraction of the emotional impact of some of the other dolls in this show.

Maryann Webster makes porcelain figures in the basic baby-doll shape that was popular for most of the last century. And, like most of the little girls these dolls were made for, the artist can’t resist taking her dolls apart: A rectangle excavated in each doll’s torso reveals small artifacts, and the variously colored bodies are covered with tattoos. Webster’s “Lazarus Figure” is branded with anatomical drawings, the joints defined by lightning marks, the spinal cord outfitted with angel wings.

Sharon Kopriva deals with loss and missed opportunity in her heart-wrenching “And the Holy Ghost,” in which three bony, 3-feet-high, wrinkled, papier-mache nuns sit in chairs making the sign of the cross. Their faces and bodies express profound regret — possibly over choices made earlier in life.

“Cradlebodybag,” by Tom Bartel, is uncomfortable to look at. Recalling the swaddled infants made several years ago by sculptor Elma Johnson, it offers a baby head protruding from a striped enclosure. Johnson’s pieces were ambiguous — they could be hopeful newborns leaving the hospital, going to a nice home.

But Bartel’s baby doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. The eyes are heavy-lidded, the smile Mona Lisa-enigmatic. Two black-booted feet dangle from beneath the enveloping sack.

Death and redemption

Christiana Lida Bothwell makes dolls that echo those macabre, late-18th-century photographs taken of dead children posed in chairs and cradles. Bothwell’s bodies are crafted from fabric that seems as if it were found in a dusty attic.

“Butterfly Girl” sits uncomfortably in a wicker rocking chair that swallows her. Her feet dangle helplessly, and her smoked porcelain face wants answers.

The exhibit’s darkest work, though, may be Michaelene Walsh’s “Fetish,” a mixed-media figure much like a traditional doll in form — but here the earthenware is black and the arms end in balls, not fingers. The feet are encased in heavy storm-trooper boots, and the pensive face looks almost eager.

Eager for what, though? This is not a doll to comfort a child at bedtime!

“Black and Blue” is equally terrifying: The doll’s body, upper arms and thighs are made of crackle-glazed, white-raku clay. The forearms and lower legs are black, topped by a bright blue monkey’s head with human, evil-looking eyes.

A child’s blithe carelessness may be on Holly Laws’ mind — she shows nothing but amputated parts left behind. Yet Laws gives us innocent-sounding titles for her carefully crafted wooden legs, cleverly tracing the history of footwear trends in the process: “Brown Kangaroo Derby Boot 1893, 1998,” “Silver T-strap Pump 1926, 1999” and “Square Toe Shoe With High Tongue 1728, 1999.”

A scarce 6 inches tall, the legs have monumental impact. They wear socks or stockings, and are jointed at the knee and poised for disembodied movement.

A happier kind of travel is explored by Antonette Cely in her nearby, just-installed exhibit of upwardly mobile dolls. These are pleasant, happy figures — well-dressed, smartly groomed women in their 20s.

Absent in this exhibit is the cheap exaggeration found in Barbies and the slobbering, maudlin sentimentality of American Girl-type dolls.

But neither are Cely’s beauties consorting with Figure’s dark dolls. Sequestered in the Folk Art Center’s Focus Gallery, they keep to themselves.

The Figure as Object shows at the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway) through Sunday, Sept. 21. The center is open every day from 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; admission is free. For more information, call 298-7928.

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