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Spawn of Ugly 

Art dolls are the new coveted cuddlies at local galleries and boutiques

Once upon a time, clutching a stuffed animal to your chest might have been a sign of abject sissiness and grounds for lunchroom banishment. But in the booming world of art dolls, sensitivity and cuddliness are no longer a shameful badge of babydom.

Artsy entrepreneurs like Parsons School of Design alums David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim have helped make dolls cool. Their adorably dysfunctional Uglydolls, with names like Wage and Wedgehead, show up at shops such as Tower Records, the MoMA Design Store, L.A.'s hipster Giant Robot and, in Atlanta, at Mad Bug and the Toy Store.

Drop into any underground emporium these days, from Grant Park's Young Blood Gallery to Buckhead's Alcove, and you'll find that for every big-business Uglydoll there are innumerable conceptual cuddlies -- in lowbrow terry cloth or yarn -- marketed by regional artists to the alterna-set.

Cabbagetown's YoYo Boutique & Gallery is currently featuring an exhibition devoted to various permutations on the artist-created alterna-toy market. Toy Stories runs through Dec. 23 and features 16 local and national artists riffing on their embrace of cuteness, alienation, whimsy and goofiness in doll form.

Some of the YoYo art dolls, like a yellow "Bunny" created by Miami clothing designer Karelle Levy, take actual animals as their inspiration. Others -- such as the one-of-a-kind furry mutants created by Miami's Friends with You or Lizette Greco's "Albino Monkey" -- are more fantastical creatures. They seem to express a sense of alienation and existential angst befitting their owners or the quirky indie sensibility of director Wes Anderson and performance artist Miranda July more than the peppy, perky Barbies and baby dolls of yesteryear.

Certain ideas recur in their design: sexual androgyny to perhaps reflect post-baby boomers' sexual anxiety; snaggleteeth, eye patches and other physical flaws to suggest an outsider status that their imperfect owners can relate to. The irony is that these frowning or confused-looking critters appear ambivalent about their ability to comfort.

The neo-plushie sensibility is a very Gen X one. Weaned on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and Sid and Marty Krofft, these post-everything artists turn the pathos and mawkishness of their childhood obsessions into products that both mock and valorize anxiety. The Uglydolls were created after Sept. 11, when co-creator David Horvath used to sketch his ameoba-meets-space alien creatures on letters to his girlfriend Sun-Min Kim living in Korea. Art toys seem to address a similar ennui-driven post-9/11 world view and a contemporary Peter Pan zeitgeist where a childhood need for reassurance can coexist with a sense of grown-up irony about the potential of a stuffed bunny to make the pain go away.

"I don't ever remember drooling over a fruit bowl or a landscape," says Alcove owner H.C. Warner, who carries Frank Kozik's Circus Punk dolls. But he finds a powerful drool factor in alterna-plushies, which activate a pleasure zone untouched by traditional art forms.

"They're kind of like the underdogs," says Giant Robot proprietor Eric Nakamura of the neo-plushies, which have sold briskly at his stores.

Toy Stories artist Susan Voelker takes that underdog notion to a hilarious extreme in her vegan answer to "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." Her huggable "Protein Power Pals" St. Soysage and Fak'n Bac'n are crime fighters in capes and masks who mock a kiddie culture of superheroes and strongmen.

Part of the toys' appeal is their low price, which corresponds with the rise in indie craft and the burgeoning alterna-homemade phenomenon of artist-created goods to counter corporate hegemony.

"It's just like buying this cute little sculpture for only $20 or so," says Young Blood co-owner and plushie artist Kelly Teasley.

The plushie is just another outgrowth, says YoYo Boutique co-owner Paulita Bennett, of graffiti and fine-artist-created T-shirts. Uglydolls and their equivalently affordable spawn are objets d'art for everyone and, more importantly, they put a cuddly, accessible, design-friendly spin on art making.

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