Toying with ideas: Marlatt makes plastics explosive

Megan Marlatt, "Coulraphobia 4," 2010, Charcoal on paper, 15" x 11".
Megan Marlatt, "Coulraphobia 4."

When I was little, I went to see the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Roanoke. I vaguely remember tightrope walkers and elephants. What remains clear in my mind, though, is a clown climbing into the stands to give my mother a flower. While Mom gushed, "You're wonderful," I cringed and prayed, "Go away, go away!"

It seems I suffer from coulraphobia, the technical term for fear of clowns, which is just one of the things I learned from Megan Marlatt's current Piedmont Virginia Community College exhibition, "The Dark Side of Play." Continuing her several-year obsession with depicting toys, the show includes two of Marlatt's familiar "toy pile" paintings, four formal portraits of Olive Oyl(!), and her hilarious and disturbing "Coulraphobia" series of six charcoal drawings and two small paintings.

Marlatt is a wit who discloses human contradictions by arranging cheerful plastic playthings into dramas that examine uncomfortable social issues. For example, in "Coulraphobia 5," two clown heads appear to leer at a cheer-leading doll's derriere. Meanwhile, in "Coulraphobia 4," a wind-up Mickey Mouse is on the verge of being shot in the back of the ears by a rifle-wielding plastic cowboy sitting astride a clown head, who himself is threatened from behind by a gun-toting toy soldier. These unlikely scenarios are funny but also tension-filled.

Marlatt moves in the other direction, too, making serious subjects comic. In her "Ms. Oyl" series, Marlatt uses oil and acrylic on round panels to mimic traditional portraiture, poking fun at no less than Rembrandt (in one image Olive Oyl wears a ruff). At the same time, she elevates the cartoon figure to a level of consideration apart from Popeye and Bluto. Marlatt's careful observation of Olive's protruding lower lip and the way her phallic nose and hair bun mirror each other is simultaneously amusing and beautiful.

The key to the success of Marlatt's images is her technical virtuosity. Her charcoal drawings are exquisitely rendered, and her careful compositions combine rough surfaces with precise reflections and articulated details. Similarly, her large paintings seamlessly shift from areas of suggested information to incidences of refined brushstrokes in ways that complement the content. Her understanding of light and color, particularly in her "Ms Oyl" portraits, is eye-opening. She is a painter who loves experimenting with all the things paint can do, yet she never loses control of the direction of her work.

With Marlatt at the artistic helm, send in the clowns.

Megan Marlatt's exhibition, "The Dark Side of Play," is on view through April 21 at the V. Earl Dickinson Building at Piedmont Virginia Community College. College Drive. 961-5202.