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Toys-or-Bust Kid: D.C. artist Cory Oberndorfer says, “I don’t want to grow up.”

Gallery or playpen? In the past three months, some of the following objects appeared in local art spaces: Tickle Me Elmo, stuffed animals, Scooby-Doo figurines, Wii games, plastic soldiers, and Pac-Man. We saw Boy Scouts and schoolgirls and regressed to their approximate age as we bounced on a computerized pogo stick and cradled furry stuffed creatures.

The artists of three recent shows—Flashpoint’s “PacGuy” by Kenny George, the Fridge’s “Uncle Cory’s Art Show,” a group exhibit curated by Cory Oberndorfer, and Civilian Art Projects’ “Don’t Look Now,” by George Jenne—have not only been inspired by their childhood—they have kept their aesthetic quite firmly in it. They’re Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, digging their heels into Neverland, and refusing to grow up—much to audiences’ delight.

“I think artists are often working out of the most fertile times in their imagination, and at a young age, a lot of images and ideas get deeply planted in the psyche and memory,” says
Jayme McLellan, director of Civilian Art Projects. “Artists can pull from this fertile time and explore it, and better understand themselves, as well as why they’re drawn to it.”

Of course, it’s not that unusual for an artist to look to his childhood for inspiration—some of art’s biggest names, both past and present, have trod that well-worn path.

Alexander Calder, the artist-inventor of the mobile, created an elaborate miniature circus in the late 1920s, complete with tightrope walkers and lions, and filmed himself acting out Cirque Calder as though it were a dollhouse. You can see it at the Whitney Museum in New York. Jeff Koons (a Maryland Institute College of Art grad), makes art about items most commonly found at a child’s birthday party—inflatable pool toys, balloon animals, Play-Doh, and Lego. Artist Paul McCarthy makes giant cartoonlike inflatable sculptures that look like they could float through Herald Square on Thanksgiving Day.

In D.C., Cory Oberndorfer has been inspired by his childhood throughout his professional career, painting candy, Popsicles, green army men, and roller derby girls for a gender-bending, sugar-and-spice blend. He says he was delighted to be able to find other artists—like Megan Blafas and Davis Connelly—in tune with his aesthetic to include in the group show at the Fridge.

“I don’t want to grow up,” Oberndorfer says. “I think as I’ve gotten older, every artist goes through some introspective period, and that didn’t really do much for me. I like the idea of reminiscing about the things I love, and using all of those things that relate to the sense of innocence I have.”

D.C’s three childlike exhibitions have been executed with varying degrees of maturity, both artistically and in regard to the subject matter.

The plush toys, plastic soldiers, Elmo dolls, and cupcakes of “Uncle Cory’s Art Show,” which ended this week, would appeal to a toddler, but the sexually charged drawings of Catholic schoolgirls introduced by Amy Misurelli-Sorensen gave the show a grown-up-too-fast Lolita vibe.

George’s altered video games and slot machine, on the other hand, suggest pre-driver’s-license teenage fun in malls and pizza parlors. But the character of PacGuy was too similar to the original for George to truly claim it as his own, and the slot machines seemed like an arbitrary fit for the show, which closed Dec. 19. It was mercurial and a little bit shallow—like your typical teenager.

Jenne is the most mature of these boy-artists. “Don’t Look Now,” which runs through Feb. 13, blends the movies and pastimes of his youth—Boy Scouts, Treasure Island, Night of the Living Dead—and combines them with his grown-up trade as a commercial prop-maker. He deftly blends childhood fears of zombies, pirates, and monsters with adult insecurities about sex and lost innocence, and he does it all with a grim sense of humor—make sure you take a second look at the badges on that Scout uniform.

“It’s interesting that they’re all doing this without knowing each other,” McLellan says. “There might be a collective zeitgeist of exploring this time.”

If three makes a trend, what is the source of this artistic Neverland—and what does it mean? To start: The young artists are of a generation that has actually grown up slower than any other. A 2004 Time poll indicated that middle-class 20-somethings delay marriage, rely on their parents longer, and don’t even fully consider themselves adults until an average age of 26, according to the New York Times. Nearly one-third of the 18- to 29-year-olds polled said they did not think of themselves as adults.

They’re also of a generation that thrives on nostalgia—especially instanostalgia for the not-so-distant past. What else explains the existence of the VH1 show I Love the New Millennium, which made its debut in 2008? By that standard, Tickle Me Elmo and Pac-Man are ancient relics crying for their proper place in history.

“It reflects trends in pop culture. People who are in their 20s…have nostalgia for things they knew existed but probably didn’t take part in, so they’re bringing it back,” says Oberndorfer. “When you look at hipster culture, that’s why ’80s clothing is back. It’s very self-referential.”

Two of the shows—Orbendorfer’s and George’s—encouraged people to play with the art, which fostered interactivity and competition between guests at their openings. It’s something D.C. needs more of, says Oberndorfer.

“Too often, art takes itself too seriously,” says Oberndorfer. “Most art is very introspective and critical, and I try to avoid that. I think given the sociopolitical climate right now, people need that sense of escape.”

It’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that painting childlike stuff is just, well, fun. Painting is serious business (and painting fun stuff makes it harder to be taken seriously, Oberndorfer notes), but it’s playful, too. And when these adults put brush to canvas, pencil to paper, or their hands to an installation, perhaps they just feel like kids all over again—or still. As Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” The solution, as these artists have learned: Don’t.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery