The Topsy-Turvy World of Childhood
Posted by Lana on June 19, 2007 - 12:12pm
Categories: On the Walls

Being a new intern at The Modern, (and a new resident of Fort Worth), I recently had my first viewing of the Pretty Baby exhibition, and wanted to comment on a few of the works before the show closes. Two artists who particularly caught my eye were Makiko Kudo and Anna Gaskell. Both artists come from different backgrounds and different cultures, and choose to work in different media (painting for Kudo and photography for Gaskell), however, I found both artists' work speaking to me in similar ways. Both artists bring forth the dichotomy of childhood: the playfullness as well as the serious issues that children experience and also reveal to adults.

Makiko Kudo, Urayamashi Mountain, 2005.  Oil on Canvas.  89 1/2 x 71 1/2 inches.  Private Collection, New York.

I noticed that Kudo and Gaskell both chose to depict scenes of childhood in a sort of "tipped up" space-- one that appears unnatural and almost distorted. The tipped up space allows the viewer to look up onto the scene. This upward vantage point, I have learned, is a quality of Japanese prints that many 19th century artists (such as Degas, Seurat, and Van Gogh) adopted in their work in order to present a new way of representation and perception (refuting the tradition of linear perpective). Similarly, Kudo utilizes this Japanese tradition in order to represent perceptions of childhood. For instance, in Kudo's painting entitled Urayamashi Mountain, 2005, oil on canvas, she depicts a young girl lying on the ground, gazing at the sky above her, appearing deep in thought. The tipped up space around her contributes to the fantastical nature of childhood and the whimsy of her presumed daydreams.

However, Kudo's choice of representation can also be interpreted as a distorted world of disallusion and confusion where the child's daydreams are no longer frivolous or fleeting. It is important to consider the usage of images of children in postwar Japan in the wake of the atomic bombings of 1945. The child can be seen as a symbol of rebirth or recovery from the wreckage. In Urayamashi Mountain, the blue girl can be interpreted as representative of the devastating violence the Japanese people have experienced and also as a figure in contemplative though that is coping with the deep emotional issues of recovery.

Kudo's use of color is also an element of her work that struck me. Her usage of bright, bold, and unnaturalistic colors are alluring as well as pointed. To me, the colors juxtaposed with Kudo's cartoon-like figured further reinforce the lack of childhood frivolity that I found expressed in her representation of space. Although Kudo's colors mirror the liveliness of youth, they also seem to signify difference. The blue girl in Urayamashi Mountain allows the viewer to recognize the figure's abberrance and empathize with childhood feelings of loneliness and displacement.

In Anna Gaskell's photographs I interpreted her depiction of children in costumes as a parallel to Kudo's usage of color. Gaskell's Untitiled #114 (1991), 2005, C-print, is a large color photograph of two boys, from the neck down, lying on the grass (presumably exhausted from an afternoon of play)-- one wears a cowboy costume complete with toy pistol in hand. The imagery of children playing dress up, running around the yard, etc. conjures up personal memories for most viewers, I'm sure.

However, like Kudo's bright colors, the little boy and his toy gun resonate deeper. In my mind, this image brought up the issue of violence and how quickly the innocence of childhood fades. Gaskell also employs an upward vantage point in this work (taking it even further by making the viewpoint also upside down) which I saw dually operating as a parallel to the whirlwind of childhood play and fantasy, but also as a reminder to the confusing and complex reality that these children will soon have to face.