New York

Andrea Loefke

PH Gallery

An adept young bricoleur with a light touch and a flair for playroom fantasy, Andrea Loefke made her first New York solo show a candy-colored zone of purposefully preadolescent ebullience. Her modest set-piece arrangements—featuring tiny barnyard animals emitting speech bubble baas and brays; small groves of flora made from string, wire, plastic sheeting and pipe-cleaners; nursery-school wallpaper; and puffy white clouds more suggestive of cotton candy than cumulonimbus—were temperamentally sweet enough to set the average visitor’s teeth on edge. Even the show’s preposterously saccharine title, “When the green frog changed into a happy prince the nearby well—splish, splash—turned into sweetened lemonade,” seemed strategically calculated to raise viewers’ blood sugar to dangerously high levels.

In a contemporary art world where optimistic earnestness remains the kiss of death, this show’s preternaturally cheerful tone felt positively uncanny. Was it all a send-up, a détournement of childhood, a subversive critique of innocence? Viewers scouring the show for irony would have found little among Loefke’s loosely connected scenarios. The gallery was dominated by a swath of blue vinyl “sky” that started at one wall and trailed across the floor. On it little clouds of cotton batting floated past a happy, yellow yarn sun toward the show’s sculptural centerpiece, a cardboard chimney that suggested stage scenery from a grade-school play. The tiny white billows entered the bottom of the flue and emerged near the ceiling as cartoonlike puffs of smoke, now dark blue yet as cuddly and harmless as when they entered. Meanwhile, a small band of cardboard animals seemed to have escaped from an expanse of alphabet wallpaper and were sidling toward a nearby clump of fantastical plants.

Loefke’s playtime world was enchanted, to be sure, but with pure white magic—her conceptual frame a kind of affirmative cocoon within which the act of making is a purely sensual one, unchecked by an internal voice urging more gravity or rigor. The artist’s untroubled creative id was particularly vivid in the dozens of discrete objects that populated a wall of small shelves, delicately cloddish sculptures looking like something from the workroom of Franz West’s little sister: tiny houses and containers and doll-like protuberances, all made from ad hoc combinations of craft-basket bits and bobs in taffy pinks, baby blues, and creamy yellows, sewn and glued and pinned together, then sugarcoated with glitter and lace. These pieces had a casual charm that further emphasized Loefke’s already-clear preference, articulated in an artist’s statement, for the “whimsical, humorous, synthetic, girly, intimate, alien, glittering, sexy, soft, innocent, explicit, humming and obscure.”

Viewers who ran this gauntlet of cuteness and emerged with their suspicious natures intact could discover (or at least imagine) occasional cracks in the shiny happy facade of Loefke’s universe: a tiny but possibly ominous tongue of blood red fabric beneath a cheery little ankle-high creature; a pair of paper collages in which it actually seemed to be (gasp!) raining. One work in particular suggested that the artist realized that even “sweetened lemonade” starts with something sour: a low-key wall painting in robin’s egg blue depicting the silhouette of a picket fence with a jagged hole in one corner, alluding to an unexpected escape from, or unwanted intrusion into, her carefully constructed daydream. It was the tiniest bit of menace, but it went a long way toward preventing the show’s otherwise unrelieved affability from becoming simply insipid. For all its obvious promise, Loefke’s work needs such a foil—after all, even the sweetest fairy tales have villains.

Jeffrey Kastner