New York

Peggy Preheim

There is something inherently obsessive about miniature portraits—an exquisite, hyperfocused sort of scrutiny that shrinks a presumably full-scale beloved to pocket-size—and it is this quality that animates Peggy Preheim’s recent show of thirty-seven pencil miniatures made between 1993 and 1997. In this album of intimate distortions and meticulous fantasies, each image measures just a few inches across, floating in the milky void of an 18-by-15-inch sheet of paper. The portraits are richly worked and tonally varied, built up with tiny strokes that disappear into a seamless photographic illusion. The association with photography was overt—a number of the drawings appropriated anonymous, Victorian portrait photographs of children—yet the artist’s preoccupations seem to require the intense, hands-on involvement of drawing, the old-fashioned, almost scatological pleasure of mark-making.

In keeping with the nineteenth-century infants in their frilled gowns, Preheim’s central theme is the psychoanalytic dreamscape of childhood, in which stuffed animals, dolls, shoes, and body parts take on the surreal intensity of fetish objects. But she is not concerned with childhood as a site of longing: these drawings were not elegiac, nor were they “about memory.” They represented, rather, a kind of ornate yet cool investigation into the idea of the toy. As a small-scale surrogate, an object made to receive transference, the toy functions in the life of a child the way a child often functions in the life of an adult. The discomfort in Preheim’s work arises from the fact that the children and the playthings are looked at and desired in the same way.

Nell, 1997, for example, showed a baby in a long white dress dwarfed by a plush, upholstered chair. Her upper body and the chair were exactingly detailed, but this fastidious draftsmanship was offset by an eerie negative space filling in the skirt of Nell’s garment, as if part of the picture had been excised. In Hommelette, 1997, a toddler’s dimpled arm and hand were isolated in an oval of lovingly rendered clothing—as if a disturbingly attentive observer had sketched only the bit of body that enticed.

The dainty hermeticism of these Victorian/Freudian images could get stale, but Preheim’s other subject matter, treated with the same demented tenderness, shifted the emphasis from period portraiture to images that might have been inspired by comic books or commercial illustration. (Apropos of the latter was Trilogy for Andy, 1996, which reproduced at postage-stamp size an immediately recognizable photo of Warhol, his silver shock of hair standing on end.) In Untitled, 1994, a Gerber-perfect baby clutched a small, smiling toy elephant, its trunk curving into the baby’s mouth like the stem of a pipe. In another pair of works (both 1994), cherubic infants—one grinning, one weeping—peeped from beneath black Medusa crowns of writhing snakes. There were also robots and wooden clowns, Pinocchios and hobbyhorses, each pressed close to the picture plane and described with a precision that left room, somehow, for a feeling of Gumby-like malleability. This humorous yet disturbing plasticity echoes Preheim’s three-dimensional work, small hybrid creatures sculpted in white clay. In both bodies of work, Preheim invests the well-analyzed terrain of childhood perversity with an aura of mutant innocence.

Frances Richard