Tiny town

Mini-me sculptures bring eerie sense of unease to The Long Day

Films like Trilogy of Terror, Magic and the Child's Play oeuvre suggest I am not the only one with a childhood-rooted fear of dolls coming to life.

Sigmund Freud described the uncanny as a class of frightening things that are also known and familiar, and there is something inherently uncanny in these small human effigies.

The wooden sculptures in Claudette Schreuders' exhibition The Long Day inspire contradictory feelings of enchantment and fear, reassurance and discomfort. The figures draw us closer with their beguiling likeness to us, but they also inspire the disquieting sensation that something sentient lies within, something waiting patiently to strike.

About the size of a lawn jockey, Schreuders' carved wooden figures are painted with enamel and stand like action figures, their limbs locked and expressions blank. They're placed on white pedestals that raise them to eye level and permit us to look directly into their calm, frozen expressions.

Like most sculptures in an art exhibition, Schreuders' little men and women are individually lit to show off the artist's formal skill. But under the circumstances, that beam of attention feels theatrical. The sculptures, with titles like "Neighbor" and "The Quiet Brother," look poised, like tiny actors, to take the stage in some intimate "Our Town"-style drama.

Schreuders' work is uncanny in more than one way. The implicit calm detachment of the sculptures' expressions hint at the opposite: a world that can be frenzied and ugly and violent. Schreuders creates a great degree of tension by evoking that contradictory ping-pong between chaos and control.

Schreuders' inspiration for The Long Day comes from the Johannesburg suburb where the South African artist lives. The residents there have experienced cataclysmic change since the end of apartheid in the '90s. Dressed in Euro-combinations of sockless brown loafers and shorts, shift dresses and sneakers, the figures have the contemporary frumpy realism of the characters in alternative comics by Daniel Clowes or Chris Ware. They can also suggest more historical influences, like religious carvings of saints and nativity scenes, folk art, Easter Island figurines, totem poles and other "primitive" art forms.

But what Schreuders documents is also culturally specific. The increased violence in South Africa after apartheid's dissolution has resulted in white residents erecting high-walled fortresses to protect themselves. The spooky, alienating qualities of the sculptures - spaced at a great distance from each other - articulates that sense of threat and anticipation that transforms domestic life into a waiting game, as wives and children wait for husbands to return home to assure their safety. It's apparent even in a sculpture like "The Long Day," in which a woman lies on her back in an ostensible posture of relaxation. The way she cranes her neck slightly to peer at her feet, her eyes and mouth open, give her a sense of wariness and expectation felt throughout the exhibition.

The sense of some unspoken, troubling reality swimming beneath the placid surface of Schreuders' work is even more obvious in a series of lithographs. "Crying in Public" is a small portrait of a woman in the same frozen, stock-still pose as the sculptures, whose composure is undermined by the tears running down her face.

In "Show and Tell," a young girl opens her white shirt to reveal her chest, yet another indication that there are complex stories of exploitation or sexual experimentation going on beneath public decorum.

Though Schreuders' Johannesburg setting feels unique, in truth The Long Day documents a very common circumstance of a superficially calm and uneventful public life, where orderly behavior and expressionless faces mask a hidden world.

"The Neighbor" is a statue of a slightly hunched, balding middle-aged man wearing an impassive expression. But walk around to the man's left side, and a large gash spewing a shocking amount of blood is visible. Though the sculpture points to an event in Schreuders' own life, in which an elderly neighbor was stabbed by intruders, the piece carries a deeper resonance.

There is a convention in news reports of tragedy. Whenever a neighbor is asked about the man living next door who has just slaughtered his entire family, or buried a cache of small boys in his basement, the neighbor inevitably responds with a blank stare and some variation on "he seemed like such a nice guy," or "he was a good neighbor."

The Long Day suggests no one should trust so blindly in appearances.??

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