Toy Story

Religion and war might seem a strange mix, but ...

For his current project at Hardcore Contemporary Art Space, Juan-Si Gonzales literally put his balls on the line. A gallery catalogue essay informs that the 47-year-old Cuban artist underwent a vasectomy-reversal operation that allowed him to create his "Stay-at-Home Dad" series of works on display.

Gonzales, who lives in Ohio with his wife, artist Paloma Dallas, has installed several digital prints on archival paper. They show his infant daughter, Camila, along with religious toys and text that reflect a virulent strain of fundamentalist marketing.

Suck on this one, fundamentalist pigs!
Suck on this one, fundamentalist pigs!

It is one of four solo shows at the gallery. The others include Aisen Chacin's "Secluded," Andres Michelena's "Time-less Time," and an untitled site-specific project by Pepe Lopez.

In his artist statement, Gonzales says he was appalled by advertisements for Chinese-manufactured toys that fuse "knee-jerk patriotism with a self-righteous blend of Christianity." The ads reminded him of the youth-targeted propaganda he encountered during the Cold War when he was growing up in Cuba.

So Gonzales took pictures of Camila during her first year of life as a spoof on wholesome, ideological upbringing. Stay-at-Home Dad: Religious Training depicts his daughter sitting in a high chair and teething on a Virgin Mary action figure. As with all of the other photos, the picture is black-and-white with a dash of color shellacking the irksome objects. Next to it, he places text straight from the packaging that informs, "'My grace is enough; it is all you need.' (Corinthians 12:9)." Then he adds that the $3.99 Madonna includes posable arms.

On a nearby pedestal rests a copy of God's Mighty Warrior Devotional Bible, which sells at Wal-Mart for $14.99. It boasts that "God created little boys to be mighty warriors ... even when they feel small." One can't help but wonder if John McCain keeps a copy on his nightstand.

Speaking of J. Mac.: Gonzales took wee Camila to a so-called storytime event at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force outside Dayton, Ohio, where tykes are invited to pose next to warplanes. He snapped a shot of the girl perched in a stroller next to the menacing image of the "Little Boy" atom bomb.

Check out the camouflage toy lunch box on the pedestal next to it. "Army of The One/The Lord our God is One Lord!" it proclaims. Cost: eight bucks.

Other trinkets in the provocative show include a "Victory in Jesus" monster truck; a red, white, and blue "Freedom" soccer ball; and a Sir Andrew the Armor Bear-er plush toy, which brags that now "God's protection can be communicated to your child" through the cuddly bear clad in the full armor of the Lord.

For those old enough to remember grade-school duck-and-cover drills, these images and objects evoke a chilly frisson of dread. Back in those days, religion and war seemed to go together well. Gonzales apparently thinks that mindset has returned with a vengeance.

Aisen Chacin addresses the issue of disposable children via photo and video sculptures that take the form of sewers and bathroom drains. As one enters the gallery, the sound of dripping and gurgling water can be heard. Poignant images of Chinese, Latin American, and African children peek out at viewers from beneath metal grills. Snippets of barefoot street urchins clad only in underwear as they race through Brazilian favelas flow together with the sullen faces of young Chinese girls.

Chacin taps into the harrowing social forces gripping Brazil and China, where death squads pick off children of the slums as if they were pigeons, and girls are killed because they are deemed inferior. Unfortunately the artist seems allergic to editing, and by repetitively belaboring the point, she causes her work's conceptual heft to hemorrhage.

Symphony 1-11 sprouts from a gallery wall in shiny aluminum bathroom plumbing that could pass for a display at a neighborhood hardware store. Tiny drains conceal slide shows of innocent victims of modern society. They're reminiscent of news reports about women who discard babies in public bathrooms.

Not all the work at Hardcore is so bleak.

Andres Michelena offers a studied meditation on notions of time that includes two jury-rigged clocks on opposing walls. One turns clockwise and the other counter-clockwise. "Time is what you make of it," he seems to say. His clocks resemble citrus fruit cleaved in two. Think of a solar wheel that ticks at three-second intervals. The spokes bear phrases such as "How deep do you want to go into the rabbit hole?" and the more Zen-like "Know but say nothing, then who knows?"

At the center of his installation stands a narrow white column crowned by a mound of sand and a crystal ball. At the front of the column, a pendulum swings under a large magnifying glass.

The sound elements of the piece croak with the pounding of pistons, sporadic ticking, raining on a slick surface, and someone breathing in celestial space. A video projector points to a rotating mirror on the floor that refracts light and images across the ceiling's surface planetarium-style.

Michelena offers respite from the flood of noise outside the room. It's all pretty esoteric, but worth lingering on if Buddhist limbo rings your chimes.

Pepe Lopez delivers the most playful vision with "Site-Specific Project." In his black-painted room, the artist has crisscrossed the walls with multihued electrical, packing, and duct tape, creating a voluminous, ribbon-thicketed abstract landscape of vines. Winding veins of reds, violets, and bony tans snake everywhere.

In the center of the room, Lopez balances what appear to be the entire contents of a Little Havana dollar store. The sculpture bristles with brooms, feather dusters, rakes, hula hoops, cloth flowers, and balls. Dashboard saints, mousetraps, rubber gloves, back scratchers, funnels, flip-flops, and the images of Che Guevara and Hugo Chávez flesh out the rollicking opus.

Lopez is riffing on Latin American street hawkers, who peddle everything from toasters to sticks of gum.

On the floor nearby lies the artist's "boom kit," containing adhesive bandages, toy soldiers, and a Molotov cocktail. Lopez seems hell-bent on clobbering fat-cat commerce and leaving the second bananas behind.

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