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Review: Stephen Paul Day's Queen of Mirth 

Unsettling nostalgia on display at Arthur Roger Gallery through Dec. 23

click to enlarge queen_of_mirth--g.jpg

Christmas has a funny way of reminding us of the innocent joys of childhood even as the world looks less and less innocent. Stephen Paul Day's magnificently crafted, yet totally weird, Queen of Mirth show features oversized recreations of vintage children's games and pop culture collectibles from the shadowy recesses of America's past. Day always mixed nostalgia with nihilism, but never has his work so perfectly matched a time when the news consists of incoherent incendiary tweets mingled with a nutty nostalgia for a fairy tale past that never was.

  Some of it almost is innocent. The title piece, Queen of Mirth (pictured), is a vastly oversized replica of a matchbox with a top hatted chorus girl tossing party favors to tiny, fawning bon vivants, a scene set off by protruding red match tips. Maybe people were just as nutty a century ago as they are now, but at least they had better style. Things take a creepy turn in an oversize replica of a 1950s children's game called Hook A Crook, featuring profiles of sketchy-looking men.

  Another children's game illustrated with figures from minstrel shows is decorous yet distinctly sinister. Day's devious craftsmanship shines in two identical cast-iron busts of Abraham Lincoln positioned so they appear to be kissing. The sheer whimsy and craftsmanship of such works make this show visually engaging and aesthetically intriguing, but it also is unsettling, considering there is no equivalence between Lincoln and any prominent contemporary political narcissists.

  A more reassuring treatment of vintage objects appears in a mini-exhibit of Audra Kohout's sculptures at nearby Soren Christensen. Here castaway objects are reborn as fantastical waifs who seem to dwell in a magical corner of the Victorian imagination. Redemption takes the form of a cast-iron music box shaped like a woman with a glass bauble in her belly, where butterflies flutter to the accompaniment of tinny, yet ethereal, tunes from the past.

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