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When artists design playgrounds it is magic. The best can turn a playground—structures that are typically formulaic—into something that is already an unexpected, intuitive space for imagination, even before children bring their own whims. Think Niki de Saint Phalle’s The Golem (1972) or Isamu Noguchi’s Piedmont Park Playscapes (1976). Yet funnily, Nevine Mahmoud’s current show of playthings at M+B Doheny, foreplay II, does essentially the opposite: it revels in the familiar, mass-produced shapes of plastic slides and tricycles, presenting a controlled ecosystem of marble, glass, plastic, and resin sculptures that are too precious and pristine to actually be played with. Instead, these sculptures—some of which might look from a distance like the toddler climbers and trikes readily available in Walmart aisles—are about something else. They are sensual and bodily, drawing weird parallels between a slide and a human tongue, a floaty toy and a nipple. The effect is surprisingly delightful.
It’s hard not to think, at least briefly, about pop legacies when looking at Mahmoud’s sculptures (the old staples: Warhol’s soup cans, Oldenburg’s giant clothespins), and certainly, there are some residues of that language based on the appropriation of common objects. But even as her sculptures stay close to their referents—details down to the plastic seams are replicated—there’s something more like world building going on, as Mahmoud makes these objects more nuanced and erotic than they should be. Tricycle index (soft parts in 3 components) (all works 2021) sits on a white, wall-mounted shelf. The trike itself is made of chalky plaster while its seat, sitting upright and separated from the trike, is made of pink alabaster and resembles the tip of a tongue. There is another component, a round pear-shaped object also made of alabaster, that could be a handle or inflated horn, but just looks so perfectly voluptuous (and so tempting to touch, given alabaster’s silky sheen) that it’s hard to pin down its purpose. The montage starts to look more like a dreamscape than something that comes ready-to-assemble in a Fisher-Price box. Similarly, in Child’s play (frame), a slide painted pink with slick autobody paint emerges from a pink marble archway that looks like it has been excerpted from a larger modular playset. The slide reads quickly as a tongue coming out from a mouth. Saint Phalle used slides as tongues too, so perhaps we’re primed to see them that way, but hers emerged from creatures, where Mahmoud’s are on their own, the fragmented body parts made more sensual because they are abstracted (and their sensuality, rather than a larger narrative, is what they have to offer).
Swing Set, installed at the back of the gallery, is the exhibition’s largest, most resolved sculpture. It’s as if Mahmoud has transcended her own references in order to make a world onto itself: where this disembodied sensuality is fully allowed to be free-floating, and we’re invited to revel in it. Mahmoud made the armature from purple, powder-coated steel, and a blue chain holds up a marble swing. Though the swing’s blunt shape recalls something plastic, made from a mold, the marble is so substantial and romantic that the object stops feeling familiar. Hanging next to the swing, higher and suspended from knotted blue rope, is a bright red glass donut—it looks a bit like a pool floatie, although, more than anything it looks like what it is: a delicate glass form, topped by a pink nipple. The nipple, attached to a swing set instead of a human body and yet outside the reach of any imaginary child, conjures open, somewhat heavy thoughts: about fertility, commerce, the weird way in which the ubiquity of certain things (mass-produced playthings included) makes them ciphers, open to all of our projections. Yet the charm of Mahmoud’s sculpture—a swing that is too gorgeous, delicate, and emotionally loaded to play on—makes these heavy thoughts surprisingly pleasant to linger over.
Nevine Mahmoud: foreplay II runs from December 11, 2021–January 22, 2022 at M+B Doheny (470 N. Doheny Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90048).