Babes in Toyland: Gendered Dynamics “At Play” in Northeastern’s Gallery 360

Installation view of “At Play” with works by Ellie Richards at Gallery 360, Boston, 2022–2023. Photo by Mel Taing.

I’ve recently picked up the descriptor “jewel box exhibition” from a beloved colleague. The phrase captures the essence of smaller-scale projects that dazzle, enchant, and offer a certain richesse. “At Play” is precisely this: a small jewel box of an exhibition, which presents visitors with a selection of artworks by five women artists who explore play.

The material contents of the show—colorful puffy stickers, monumental foam building blocks, a pile of inverted stuffed animals, a rainbow of heavily used crayons—more readily suggest a toy box. But toys and jewels alike are baubles whose presumed frivolity often curtails critical inquiry. Against this tendency, “At Play” centers trifles and trinkets as its subject.

Installation view of “At Play” at Gallery 360, Boston, 2022–2023. Pictured are works by Angela Washko from the series Heroines with Baggage, including cyanotypes (2012/2022), a wallpaper installation (2012/2022), and the video Don’t Leave Me! (2012). Photo by Mel Taing. Courtesy of the artist.

These toys reveal much about socialized behavior along axes of gender and class. Angela Washko’s Heroines with Baggage series demonstrates the overwhelmingly common tropes of codependence and passivity assigned to women characters in video games, while Ani Liu’s A.I. Toys series reconfigures data from online retailers and proposes new toys to hyper-gendered ends (“Silver Scented Pony Hair Barbie Doll” vs. “Aqua Rider Scoot Knifeman Figure” or “It’s so Me! My First Tiara” vs. “World War 3 Electronic Battling Game with Single Target”).

Aimee Gilmore, Chrome Series (Dollhouse), 2022. Chromed dollhouse. Photo by Mel Taing. Courtesy of the artist.

Toys also become sites for creativity, speculation, and fabulation. Ellie Richards’s assisted readymades combine objects charged with gendered stereotypes of labor and leisure, but also suggest an imaginative reexamination of day-to-day experience. Aimee Gilmore’s chromed dollhouse crystallizes the tensions and tenderness of motherhood, lending itself to plenitude and ambiguity. Department of Play’s Block Party Meditation is touchable and comes with optional building prompts to inspire and engage participants.

Like a jewel refracts light, toys mediate, and play enables. Fanciful and thoughtful, “At Play” successfully matches the charm and complexity of its theme with generative and prismatic artwork.

At Play” is on view at Northeastern University’s Gallery 360 through April 8, 2023.

Kendall DeBoer is a curatorial assistant in the department of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She’s also a PhD Candidate in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. She studies unconventional materials in twentieth- and twenty-first-century art, like glitter, cellophane, hair, and jello, and is particularly interested in their atmospheric and emotional effects.