Toys in the attic 

Fenske's paintings aren't just child's play

Venture up the attic stairs of his West End brick bungalow and you will find the source of painter Jonathan Fenske's obsessions.

Where some might horde pornography, hootch or some other vice far from the little woman's prying eyes, Fenske has a more obscure obsession, carried over from childhood.

Fenske's "issue"?


"The first memory I have is finding a Fisher-Price minibus," says Fenske of the Rosebud that led him to his current artistic obsession. He indicates a shelf nearly bowed with all manner of bright, plastic playthings.

"I was on a walk with my mom and brother and I found that ... and asked if I could take it home, never knowing what it would become ..." his voice trailing off as if momentarily lost in a reverie of that blessed day.

Fenske calls the attic room his "studio." There is an easel holding a work in progress and other paintings of the children's book he's currently working on, but playroom feels like the more accurate description.

The small room is dominated by shelf after shelf piled with pristine specimens of a Fisher-Price childhood: Happy Haulers, Allie Gators, Little Snoopys, Lift and Load Depots, Fun Jets, Chatter Telephones, Bossy Bells and Molly Moo-Cows.

Since 2001, Fenske, who studied sculpture at Clemson, has been creating hyper-realist paintings starring Fisher-Price Little People and other nostalgia-laden toys.

Fenske, who has eyes the Windex blue of a Fisher-Price lagoon, loves the ambiguity of his vintage toys, which invite kids to insert their own scenarios onto the minimalist, pleasant faces of Little People. In essence, his paintings are simply a grown-up continuation of that sense of play and projection.

His paintings depict his grinning plastic muses acting out scenarios of adultery, war in Afghanistan, 9-11, gender politics and other issues far from the innocent make-believe world of child's play. In the pithy, wry "Special Delivery," for example, a toy mail truck is parked in the driveway of a Fisher-Price Play Family House and upstairs the postman and lady of the house can be glimpsed with their stout plastic bodies held close together.

Fenske hails from a Greenville, S.C., family of six children who also loved Fisher-Price. Fortunately, his mother was an amateur conservationist of his precious pals. "After we played with them, she would dust them or clean them off and put all the pieces together," he says.

As a result, many of the toys housed in Fenske's attic are actual mementos from childhood.

Fenske's wry, fanciful treatment of his Fisher-Price people and other exquisite Americana can currently be seen in the Spruill Center for the Arts' Looks Good on Paper show through Aug. 30, which contains a moody, sublime Fenske "Big Boy." Through July 31, viewers can also catch a small representation of Fenske's work at his Matre Gallery in the Tula art complex.

For Art's Sake is a biweekly column on Atlanta's visual arts scene.


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