The Magic and Mischief of Childhood Come Alive at the Wallach Gallery’s Show

Growing Sideways shows how artists explore the growth of the self that starts when one is young.

Eve Glasberg
June 17, 2024

Growing Sideways: Performing Childhood, the summer exhibition at the Wallach Gallery of Art, explores how artists have turned to and repurposed aspects of childhood to counter inherited belief systems, identities, and cultural memories in the public sphere. The exhibition opens on June 21, and will remain on view through September 15.

Through a diverse range of works drawn from the United States, Europe, and Latin America, the group exhibition offers a timely examination of childhood, social values, and development. From thoughtful interlocutor to animated dreamer, from memory keeper to code disruptor, the child-like is featured not as underdeveloped or lesser than, but as an artistic strategy that challenges the behaviors and codes regulating the adult world.

Vulnerable and dependent, children invoke connection, empathy, and compassion; they also stumble, baffle, and charm. Unruly and lively, kids can frustrate order. Many of the artists included in the exhibition access this vital and mischievous force to raise crucial questions about the social values inculcated through dolls, fables, lullabies, and the like. Other artists whose work is exhibited turn to the child to generate new understandings of the self, and to prompt questions about what is perceived, even at a young age.

Through scale-shifting installations, intermedia performances, and collaborative photographic works, Growing Sideways invites audiences to encounter how artists playfully yet critically defamiliarize disciplinary material—from the inversion of a hand game posed by Lorna Simpson to the invention of a novel superhero captured by Aura Rosenberg, from the installation of miniature toy appliances by Ghislaine Leung to the soaring kites of Joan Jonas. 

The artists whose work is included in the exhibition are: Yvonne Andersen, Ericka Beckman, Ian Cheng, Beatriz González, Joan Jonas, Tina Keane, KwieKulik, Ghislaine Leung, Tala Madani, Gordon Parks, Aura Rosenberg, Lorna Simpson, Sable Elyse Smith, and Kerry Tribe.

Columbia News spoke recently with exhibition curator Janina Piper Marshall, a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, with a specialty in modern and contemporary art, who has organized exhibitions at A.I.R. Gallery, Swiss Institute/Contemporary, and Mary Boone Gallery. 

How did this exhibition come about?

Growing Sideways draws from my research on the artist and filmmaker Ericka Beckman, a relatively unsung artist who began making work in the 1970s. Her archive reveals an investigation of child psychology—a concern shared by fellow practitioners like Joan Jonas, whose current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York I helped to curate.

I was struck by this interest amid the context of more contemporary lines of thought proposed by Jack Halberstam, Kathryn Bond Stockton, and José Munoz. These queer theorists articulate the child as effective at modeling resistance through back-and-forth connection and disruption. The title of the show is indebted to Bond Stockton.

How do some of the artists in the show access aspects of childhood to examine growth and the development of the self?

Artists access childhood through educational material—school primers, picture books, and lullabies. These things are profoundly disciplinary and can yield division, prescribe narratives, and dictate social dynamics, all of which contribute to the foundations of self. In the exhibition, Beatriz González’s Lullabye, an assemblage, features a pop image of mother and child enclosed within a municipal crib. The juxtaposition opens up questions about the social roles that representation communicates. 

One could also look to the Coloring Book series of Sable Elyse Smith. These exhibited works feature the picture book given to children in court waiting rooms. Smith adds bold, child-like marks, and the intervention is transformative and liberatory when set against the source material that primes juveniles for punitive infrastructure.

How do visual artists present the child as a catalyst of social change?

Key to the exhibition is understanding the child and the child-like as an energy that can alter inherited material and counter reproduction. Lorna Simpson, for instance, portrays the child as a transformer of hand games; her intervention also carries a coded message of connection. Other artists reveal children grabbing from material at hand to craft novel representations germane to identity; such ingenuity is evident in the photographs of Aura Rosenberg and the films of the Yellow Ball Workshop, also on view within this show.

Related Programming

Curator Piper Marshall will discuss the exhibition at 6 pm on June 27 at the Lenfest Center for the Arts.

Children can drop by the Wallach Gallery on July 13, 1-3 pm, for a kite-making session, inspired by Joan Jonas’s Draw on the Wind, which is featured in the show.