Since Toscani first installed her work at Franconia Sculpture Park in the late 1990s, her outsized, quirky, even clumsy sculptures, sporting bright colors, weird shapes and unconventional appendages, have attracted a devoted fan base. Her pastel-hued "Molecule," which dominates the front lawn of the University of Minnesota's Molecular and Cellular Biology Building along Washington Avenue SE., injects humor into science while suggesting a jungle gym for Brobdingnagians. Similarly the red-and-blue "Muscle," equal parts whirligig and vegetable on legs, has presided with goofy authority over the St. Paul Farmers Market (currently it's in St. Paul's Western Sculpture Park because of light-rail construction).
Her new exhibit "Body Double" at SooVAC features work on a much smaller scale, but the aesthetic recipe of mundane materials, changing scale, cultural puns and off-key humor is here in force.
She describes her new mixed-media works as investigations of Americana, "embodiments of Midwestern living." In its synthesis of materials, form and personal narrative, Toscani's work makes blunt and opaque references to small-town parades and rural living, the culture of kitsch, the innocence of childhood, the impact of aging, how artifice is confused with reality, even queer culture. They seem to raise more questions about their exact identity than they answer. At its most elemental level, the work is a collage of Toscani's past and present, a sort of idiosyncratic self-portrait animated through materials.
"Tableaux," for example, is a miniature parade float, adorned with white fringe and garish plastic decoration in vivid hues. But instead of hosting celebs, athletes or contestants waving to the crowd, the float is affixed with a child's inflatable seesaw, a small playground ladder and four little leather boxing gloves.
"Leisure Suit" was inspired by homemade potholders. Ungainly but humorous, its tall, welded loom-like armature, whose shape defies description, is embedded in an asphalt base and woven with strips of polyester fabric in such colors as taupe, turquoise, black and orange. Although "Leisure Suit" has no function, it still evokes a do-it-yourself craft sensibility, and magnifies the term "lowbrow."
Equally vague is a small, colorful, three-legged work titled "Patsy." Made from recycled and melted plastic objects such as a child's sled, Kool-Aid pitchers and recipe boxes, it projects a familiarity, but of what?
In "Somebody Else's Self-Portrait" a figurative form wears a red dog sweater. Its bulbous head, made of black and white pipe cleaners, is a reference to the artist's graying hair.
More overt is "Butch Girl." At 10 feet tall, the painted plywood Dutch girl cutout, wooden shoes and all, is a lesbian riff on the iconic Dutch Boy Paints image that parodies the statues found at amusement parks and cultural sites where one inserts one's face into an opening. Here, in a twisted but effective commentary, the opening is in the "Butch Girl's" crotch.
Although provocative, the show seems more a collection of visual ruminations or sculptural sketches than completed works. More like ideas in the making, "Leisure Suit" and "Tableau" are engaging on first take, but their content or raison d'être is too opaque to resonate over time. "Butch Girl" is the exception. Here, Toscani effectively fuses her cultural critique to the appropriate materials and execution to create a smart, resolved work.
Scale has its own power, and "Butch Girl" succeeds, in part, because of its size. Similarly, scale plays a big role in the effectiveness of Toscani's large outdoor pieces. It is not an intellectual stretch to envision "Muscle" and "Molecule" as crazy cousins to Minnesota's towering Paul Bunyan or giant-walleye statues, a sort of inverted underbelly of American roadside culture.