This past winter, Dick Bjornseth showed Barbie’s timelessness and eerie dynamism in the curious exhibit, Memoirs of a Plastic Person. Gallery patrons stepped through the doors into a warped dollhouse with Barbie limbs and baby doll faces galore.
In his photographs capturing bedroom and domestic scenes of plastic dolls in compromising positions, Memoirs pokes fun at 50s-60s culture while aiming to lift our picture-perfect misconceptions we hold of that time today.
In his artist statement, Bjornseth cites David Lynch’s controversial classic Blue Velvet as a key source of inspiration. Specifically the iconic opening scene, where the camera shows a man blissfully mowing the lawn, then travels underground to reveal all the filth and worms crawling around.
“That angle of Blue Velvet is what I was addressing, the idea that on the surface everything is really rosy but there are some other things going on too,” Bjornseth remarks.
A drawing professor at Savannah College of Art and Design, Bjornseth worked with mannequins in the initial stages of his career, later on switching to dolls for their convenience, posing, and accessibility to varied types of media.
“About the same time, I discovered E-bay, and I could find all kinds of dolls that were just amazing. That got me into kind of a doll collection mode. I now have probably 40 Mary Kate and Ashley dolls, about the same number of Barbies, and all kinds of big and small dolls.”
Of all the commercial relics in his work, consumers will recognize classics like Sad Eye Susie doll, 50s Barbie, lava lamps, clips from Look magazine, and classic ad campaigns—creating nostalgia for Bjornseth’s childhood era.
While both modern and 50-60s culture influence his work, instances from his own life come into play as well.
Referencing a color print that displays a school girl Mary-Kate posing alongside a cut-out diagram of five young female figures.
“This reminds me of a biology class I had to take in high school dealing with human reproduction. I remember we had a student teacher come into class, and they gave them the job of teaching us human reproduction. It was so embarrassing, and that embarrassment inspired the work.”
On one hand, one could say his work is a playful expose on the crusty underlining in 50s, American Dream culture, on the other, a love letter to the time. Through the campy images and nostalgia, the sees a genuine portrait of how Bjornseth saw the era—acting as both an expose and a celebration.
“Some people think I’m pretty critical of the 50s and 60s, but that’s the time I grew up. If I’m critical of anything it’s the fact that some people in 2010 reevaluate what happened in the 50s and 60s and put their own special spin on it. . .I thought the 50s and 60s was a wonderful time to be alive, but it wasn’t all glamour. It was a lot of embarrassment and a lot of awkwardness, as any kid has. In that sense, my work illustrates that what happened then still goes on today.”