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RoCo’s exhibit approaches serious subjects with merry media 

Rochester Contemporary Art Center's newest show, "It's Not Funny," brings together local, national, and international creators who use toys and humor as raw materials for art that expresses serious subject matter. Bright colors and familiar playthings draw viewers and create a wry dissonance when the makers' meanings sink in.

The show brings together a variety of traditional and more outlandish materials, from hyper-realistic oil paintings of chrome trophies and toys by Chicago artist Chris Cosnowski and Florida-based artist Dan Gunderson's eye-catching, translucent photographs of bright toys carefully arranged into dazzling mandalas to an ambitious installation by Rochester-based balloon-art collaborative Airigami.

Known for their impressively complex balloon-art sculptures, Airigami artists Larry Moss and Kelly Cheatle have departed from their usual work of transforming environments with light-hearted subjects to create something darkly topical. "No chains will ever hold that" features a King Kong-esque Donald Trump scaling the Capitol building and holding Lady Liberty hostage, while paper jets fly toward the monster.

With remarkable attention to folding the right balloons just-so, the work reads like a political cartoon come to life. They perfectly capture the beastly politician's sense-defying hair swoop and rage-puckered face

Cosnowski's jaw-dropping paintings contain a fascinating tension between their dually loud and subtle nature. On the one hand, the high-contrast, bright colors and utterly perfect rendering of plastic and metallic surfaces scream for attention, but the subject matter demands a bit of thought.

"Ferrigno" sets a chrome trophy with the likeness of actor and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno appropriately against a pure Hulk green background, nodding to his iconic status. "The trophies are presented as a critique of capitalism since they're all about winning and competition," Cosnowski says in his artist statement.

Cosnowski's own likeness is reflected multiple times in the statue, a distorted self-portrait, which he says he's included as his acknowledgement of his participation in the commodification of art, when paintings serve as trophies for collectors.

In Cosnowski's "M1A2 Abrams Model Parts," numbered, riveted bits of a toy tank are still connected to the packaging grid, awaiting a model-maker's careful work and war games. And "I Love Humanity This Much" features the foolish and fragile Humpty Dumpty wearing a vacant smirk, with his short arms spread wide.

Columbus, Ohio, artist Tyler Bohm's mixed media work addresses the role of technology and social media in shaping our lives and experiences. Two "Filter Bubble" works take on a science-fiction tone, with groups of tiny figurines unwittingly trapped under domes and the bodies arranged into clusters forming happy and angry faces when seen from above.

The works "comment on social media filters, specifically the way they sell you a sense of community at the cost of distorting reality," Bohm says in a provided statement. And the potentially dangerous limitations of social-media algorithms is explored further in his "Almost Utopia," in which a mob forms the iconic Facebook "like" thumbs-up, except for one dissenting individual.

Rochester-based artist Bob Conge — the man behind the custom vinyl figure company, Plaseebo — was ahead of the trend that has blown up since vinyl collectables company Kidrobot entered the scene. Nearly 50 of his creations are presented on lines of shelves, showing off Conge's diverse style of misfits, beasts, and bots.

Combining elements of the macabre with animal features and machinery, many of the figures reflect Conge's cultural criticisms. Included are a monstrous "Atomic Chicken" taking revenge on humanity; "Lobbyist," a bloated shark shredding the American flag; and "Bank America/Come Suckle on the Tit of Credit," a shitting, skull-faced piggy bank that comes with bottle nipples and a human mask.

Across the space is an installation of five images from Tel Aviv-born, Vancouver-based photographer Dina Goldstein's "In the Dollhouse" series. Saturated in pink, the large-format images were created using live models and room-sized sets. With rotating limb lines added, stiff gestures, and plastic-looking wigs, the subjects effectively present the illusion of staring at Barbie and Ken dolls.

But Goldstein's behind-the-scenes visions of the perfect couple's private life challenge ideals of beauty, power, gender stereotypes, and happiness. The images depict a closeted Ken primping while Barbie looks on; in one picture she walks in on him and another handsome doll.

Rochester-based artist Jason Schulmerich typically creates sci-fi-inspired drawings, but for this exhibit, he presents two zines: "Hell Bart" and "Hell Mickey." The works were created in collaboration with friends and strangers, who Schulmerich asked to quickly depict the universally-known characters without reference imagery.

This simple concept yields some entertaining doodles — some of which are replicated in vinyl on the wall above the zines — and a surprisingly deeper connection. In his statement, Schulmerich says, "I'd say if you want to connect with humanity on a massively global scale, your best bet would be to use a talking mouse or lovable juvenile with a really bad attitude."

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