Childhood, humanity's great shared traumatic socializing process, has been portrayed in all its disasters, delights and ambiguities since art history's earliest moments. Modern art is full of clumsy kids, from Egon Schiele's skeletal Viennese hipsters to the most awkward and unknown sitters for Warhol's Screen Tests. Two exhibitions in Chelsea foreground the conflicting impulses of youth, one playing gruesomely with its cheerful toys, the other portraying tentative postures and longing glances with quasi-Fauvist tones and magical realist imagery.
Sinister Play at Denise Bibro Fine Art (through March 5), as its title suggests, features seven artists who portray toys creepily. The best works in the show don't force the issue—the way Kendrick Mar's axe-toting plush bunnies and Jon Pellicoro's photographs of beached dolls do—but interfere as little as possible in the presentation of unsettling playthings. Chief among these are Tim Ripley's lush oil paintings of eerie Play Doh objects like the fungal miniature "Hand Grenade" (2008), and Meredith Allen's photos of plastic-wrapped stuffed animals. Simultaneously suggestive of body bags and auto-erotic asphyxiation, the latter combine the unbalanced exhibition's major themes—indicators of violence and sexuality articulated in toy design and the way they're manipulated and distorted in the process of play—in a nice (macabre) little package.
The young painter Robin Williams focuses on kids rather than their menacing toys in her incredible exhibition of large-scale canvases, Rescue Party, at P.P.O.W. (through February 26). Frail, hesitant, hunched-over teenage bodies populate her luminous neon-tinged environments like snapshots from a fairy tale adolescence. Many of the elongated figures—evoking Alex Katz in shape, but more expressionist in brushstroke—appear partly clothed or fully nude, while others conceal their faces under elaborate masks of flowers, the petals built up into sculptural clusters of oil paints. The bold palette is never garish, more like a pointillist landscape with gentle gradients between bright lime greens, neon pinks, yellows, oranges and blues.
In the painting that gives the exhibition its title, six teens lean expectantly (or flop indifferently) in a small inflatable pool, the dramatic composition evoking, of all things, Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Intended or not, the allusion seems appropriate: headed into the most challenging and exciting periods of their lives, Williams's young subjects are all sharp features and hopeful gazes. Distressed but not cowered by uncertainty, these are among the most evocative, sensitive and ultimately hopeful young adults painted in years.
(Images courtesy Meredith Allen and Denise Bibro Fine Art; Robin Williams and P.P.O.W.)