Jim Dine (American, b.1935), PINOCCHIO (EMOTIONAL), Cincinnati Art Museum, Museum Purchase: Lawrence Archer Wachs Trust, Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Leyman Endowment, Phyllis H. Thayer Purchase Fund, A.J. Howe Endowment, Henry Meis Endowment, On to the Second Century Art Purchase Fund, Israel and Caroline Wilson Fund, Trustee Art Purchase Fund, and Tom and Dee Stegman, Accession #: 2012.9, © 2012 Jim Dine/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

With his new bronze sculpture, “Pinocchio (Emotional),” a scary-monster/sweetie-pie welcoming people outside the Cincinnati Art Museum, Jim Dine conjures a lot of pop-culture ghosts and nightmares while also paying homage to the original 1883 children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.  The statue is imposing, and the glazed patina of it harkens back to Rodin.  High art glosses low, but also an eccentric sentimentality gives the whole thing a kinky veneer.  It’s as if Dine wants to transform the Disney puppet/boy into a man-boy-god of steel, a cartoon pulled from suspended animation and recast as personal totem.

When I witnessed “Pinocchio,” it was a beautiful spring day, not a cloud in the sky.  The crystal clarity of the sunlight only made the statue seem a little creepier.  The facelessness and the wide open arms are disquieting and Golem-like, as if it just might come to life and move slowly toward you, like a figure in one of those stop-motion animated movies made by the Quay Brothers, or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.

Dine’s sculpture also brings to mind Michael Jackson.  More specifically, seeing “Pinocchio (Emotional)” reminded me of the tragic and accused pop-music pedophile trying to reclaim his status as “King of Pop” on the cover of HIStory, his 1995 greatest hits LP.  Just as the rest of the world was moving onto other idols, Michael transformed himself on the cover of that album into a Stalinist icon, a lavish, stone-gray skyscraping monument.  In this grand gesture of sculptural hubris, Jackson seemed to be wishing he could bury his past and resurrect himself as innocent, super-talented, somehow beyond human.

Dine’s hulking “Pinocchio” isn’t a skyscraper by any means, but it does stand there in its little swath of grass as if to declare its ontological importance to a world no longer interested in old-school morality tales, or even possibly Pop Art.  And like the statue on the cover of Jackson’s album, Dine’s sculpture’s rigid, antique permanence gives off the vibe of a gigantic piece of Stalinist-era playground equipment.  Pinocchio’s rugged facelessness transforms the puppet-boy into toy-soldier.  Dine wants to provide gravity, it seems, to Pinocchio’s reputation.  (Inside the museum hangs a suite of prints he did to illustrate the original Collodi-written Pinocchio story.  These color lithographs exhibit the same gorgeously blunt treatment of the legend as the sculpture does.  There’s an artist quote on the wall too, in which Dine defines the spiritual/metaphorical aspects of the Pinocchio legend, as well as its importance on his life and work.)

In turns out Jackson not only had an existential resemblance to Pinocchio, he also had a major obsession with him.  In a recent auction of some of the items from Jackson’s estate, Pinocchio statues, paintings, figurines, and puppets abound.  As well, back in 2000, Jackson commissioned an airbrushed painting of the puppet-boy with its creator Geppetto, both of them smiling and cuddling on a mystical tree-swing.  In 1996, when Walt Disney World celebrated its 25th anniversary with a TV special, Jackson co-hosted and insisted on having a life-size Pinocchio escort him through his hosting duties.  The mythology of the story becomes Jackson’s mirror:  he seems to find a version of himself in the talking stick transformed into flesh and blood.  It’s both poignant and so obvious as to be just plain sad.

Dine’s interest in Pinocchio has some of that same nostalgic yearning, without the tragic gloss of super-stardom gone sour.  There’s no Neverland in Dine’s cosmological connection to the Pinocchio story, no undercurrent of transgression.  He just seems to want Pinocchio to mean more than he actually means.  In a news release for the unveiling, Dine states that he feels “the idea of a talking stick becoming a boy [is] like a metaphor for art, and it’s the ultimate alchemical transformation.”  Dine sanctifies his love of Pinocchio in an effort to find “meaning,” to elevate the 19th story of the stick-into-boy into a metaphor about art and artists and the art they make.

A godfather of Pop Art, Dine was one of the main figures in its birthing, beginning in 1962 with the exhibition New Painting of Common Objects at the Norton Simon Museum, his works featured along those of Claes Oldenberg, Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebeau, and Roy Lichtenstein.  From the start, Dine’s art has always been about simplifying and glorifying simultaneously, which is one of the essences of how “common objects” transformed into a genre called Pop Art.  Dine turned screwdrivers, hammers, housecoats, skulls and hearts into totems of meaning outside of themselves, capturing their throbbing essences without paying attention to what any of that process “means.”  His  Pop Art never seemed to be about metaphors or alchemy; it was almost like a cancellation of metaphor, simile and magic, and more of a reinforcement of both the object’s strangeness and how he had found, through art, a purposelessness that transcends what objects do and are supposed to be.   In other words, he was writing love-letters to banality.

The “Pinocchio (Emotional)” sculpture is almost in opposition to that sense of estranged, candy-colored ordinariness.  This bronze enlargement of Pinocchio seems more like a really loud prayer than a love-letter.  Dine is staking a claim to meaning instead of trying to figure out how to escape it.  This transformation from Pop Art cheekiness to a yearning to turn Pinocchio into a god gives the sculpture, and the appropriation of the whole Pinocchio brand, a soulful yet humorless hush, an oddly official countenance, as if the Church of Pinocchio, Inc. commissioned the piece.

Jeff Koons’ 1988 ceramic sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” is a golden, glossy, slightly mean-spirited parody of Jackson’s luxurious iconography, as well as a paean to Jackson’s (and to some extent Koons’) penchant for being his own puppet, a self-appointed Pinocchio who spent the majority of his adult life trying to return to innocence by re-inventing (through plastic surgery and other means) what it means to be a man and a boy at the same time.  And then there’s Bubbles, of course – his sidekick/soul-mate – given his chance at glittery posterity.

Unlike Dine’s to Pinocchio, Koons’ elegy to Jackson is ceramic, an indoor overgrown knick-knack with a twisted irony built into both its subject-matter and technique (think of Jackson in Martin Bashir‘s 2003 TV interview as they toured a high-end Las Vegas kitsch superstore, buying every trinket and bauble in the land, saying, “Do I already have that?  Did I already buy that one?”).  This Pop Art tombstone is breakable.  Dine’s is most definitely not, an outdoor giant of a boy, anonymous and heavy, colored by that expressionistic patina.  The thing stands proudly with its arms wide open as if to invite us into another world, possibly at the gates of Heaven, or at the entrance to a theme park.

Dine’s Pinocchio doesn’t seem to be any blither or weirder than any other big bronze statue depicting a religious or historical or pop-culture figure.  What’s missing, possibly, is that hint of meanness, that sense of irony that turns pop into Pop.  Maybe sentimentality, no matter how you try to cut it, needs a chaser just like whiskey does:  something to splash away its overt intention, to make the drunkenness a little less “there.”  Or in an inversion of the Mary Poppins’ tune:  “Just a spoonful of medicine makes the sugar go down.”

Pinocchio exists in this media-saturated world in so many styles and guises, a bronze statue of him decorating an art museum’s lawn feels a tad-bit unremarkable, and not in a good way.   The transformation is kind of static and slightly morose, a memorial that gives Pinocchio a faux gravitas.

Another popular culture genius, Steven Spielberg, used Pinocchio as both muse and avatar.  Writing the screenplay for his 1978 masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he relied on the Disney movie as a source of inspiration.  In fact he played the Jiminy Cricket song “When You Wish upon a Star” over and over while he wrote.  But even Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for all its wide-eyed, romanticized worship of “the third kind,” has at the center of its narrative a kidnapped child.  The scene in which that boy is taken out of his house in a vacuum of sinister orange light is one of those masterful cinematic set-pieces that fuses entertainment with real emotion.  The kid’s mother struggling to keep his legs within her grasp as he is swept from her through the doggy door is the flip-side of “When You Wish upon a Star,” as if to answer Jiminy Cricket’s mystical populism with the populism of mass disappearances.

Jim Dine (American, b.1935), Detail of: PINOCCHIO (EMOTIONAL), Cincinnati Art Museum, Museum Purchase: Lawrence Archer Wachs Trust, Mr. and Mrs. Harry S. Leyman Endowment, Phyllis H. Thayer Purchase Fund, A.J. Howe Endowment, Henry Meis Endowment, On to the Second Century Art Purchase Fund, Israel and Caroline Wilson Fund, Trustee Art Purchase Fund, and Tom and Dee Stegman, Accession #: 2012.9, © 2012 Jim Dine/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Contemporary art often tries to de-spiritualize – to suck away the popular cultural meaning in an effort to reveal the absurdity of objects meaning more than they really should.  “Pinocchio (Emotional)” is about the opposite of that kind of deconstruction; Dine is applying spirituality to a pop-culture figure, luxuriating in that godliness, celebrating the nostalgic thrill of it.  It’s a beautifully crafted homage, as are the lithographs inside.  But where do you go with all that except to church?

–Keith Banner

One Response

  1. Where you go with that is FEELING again, a picture of angst of soul. Maybe we could say it is a tiribute or giant statement of FEELING that somebody so desperately needs to do even if it looks like Pinnochio to get our attention. So the story goes ,Pinocchio did come to life from a stick and intent from the heart of his “dad”. Sometimes I’ve felt like stick looking at Campbell soup cans for art.

    Our culture has drifted so far out of touch with feeling anything because of the glut of glitz and stimulation with things that don’t touch us at all inside which is pretty much what art has passed for without spirit for too long.

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