An American icon just turned 60 years old.
On March 9, 1959, the first Barbie doll went on display at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. The creation of Barbie by the Mattel company represented a turning point in toy lore and doll collection history; she was the first mass-produced toy doll in the United States with adult features.
At Art Gallery 21 in Wilton Manors, Barbie's birthday bash takes the form of an eclectic exhibit of original art, including interactive dioramas paying homage to the doll and her place in American culture. It's called "The Art of Barbie," and it runs through April 6.
The idea took root last year when Constance Ruppender, Art Gallery 21's founder and an avid Barbie collector, was approached by two artists who were equally enraptured by the diminutive plastic beauty.
"They're fascinated with Barbie because she allows them to play in a way that they can't play with paints and other materials," says Ruppender.
In addition to a glass-encased "Barbie Retrospective" showing how the doll has changed over the years (and including Barbies from Ruppender's own collection of about 300), the exhibit features a Warhol-style painting of the doll's famous blonde head, a number of tableau vivant photographs with Barbie and her paramour Ken as the stars and a screen showing an episode of "Desperate Plastic," a web series created by local artist Rodger Helt.
"I had a younger sister who had two Barbies and a Ken and I had a G.I. Joe," says Helt. "We played with those dolls together and I would always build houses for her dolls. So the sets for 'Desperate Plastic' are not a stretch because I did things like that years ago."
Among the pieces at "The Art of Barbie" that visitors seem to enjoy the most are dioramas created by Helt. Using sets from "Desperate Plastic," Helt created an installation where a visitor can stand on an "X" on the floor and view an image of themselves "shrunk" down to Barbie's size as a way to enter her world.
Artist Justin Bullard employed technology he learned as a former software engineer to get the sizing just perfect. "I've been dressing up like Ken to add more to the shows," says Bullard with a laugh. His costume includes a vinyl wig that mimicks Ken's perfectly coiffed plastic hair, which he bought online.
The 11.5-inch Barbie has stirred her share of controversy in the last few decades; in time, her body dimensions -- ample bosom, teeny-tiny waist, impossibly long legs -- would raise the ire of critics who felt her form promoted an unrealistic body image for young girls.
"It's only the adults who do that," says Ruppender. "Children don't care. They like the fact that they can change Barbie's clothes, they can fix her hair. She's not a real person and children get that. They use their imaginations when they play with Barbie."
But Barbie has adapted to the changing times. In recent years, Mattel rolled out a diverse series called "Fashionistas." The series includes male and female dolls with seven different body types, 11 different skin tones and a variety of hairstyles.
Ruppender says she hopes that people visiting the exhibit will remember the value of play time. "It reminds me of that old George Bernard Shaw quote," she says: "'We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.'"
THE ART OF BARBIE:
HOMAGE TO A GLOBAL ICON
Art Gallery 21
600 NE 21st Court
Wilton Manors, FL 33305
Runs through April 6, 2019
Thursday 12 PM – 8 PM
Friday 12 PM – 8 PM
Saturday 12 PM to 8 PM
Docents will be on duty to provide guided tours and information. Free to the public.
For general information, please call 954-661-4740.