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Finding real toads in the Miller Gallery's Make-Believe garden 

Based on the poster for the Miller Gallery's Moratorium on Make-Believe show -- a red toy trolley arcs off a grassy cliff in a colossal display of flames -- visitors might expect a creative assault on Mr. Rogers. Instead, this showcase for six Carnegie Mellon MFA candidates offers broad-spectrum commentary on fantasy. And while the title promises an overall suspension of the pretend, the artwork itself -- paradoxically -- frankly engages it.

This is particularly evident in the work of Chris Beauregard, whose smorgasbord of handmade horror-movie props range from life-size, red candy "Bloody Axes" to the delightfully realistic artificial hand in the multimedia "Cundalini Wants His Hand Back (Mad Max)." While the various works are exquisitely constructed and united by their association with a classic form of make-believe, their overall conceptual direction seems less focused.

Video artist Eileen Maxson, meanwhile, provides piercing insight into media-born fantasy. Her contrived "live-feed" broadcasts, based on formulaic 24-hour cable programs, are sporadically interrupted by transmission failures. With "Court TV -- Unknown," Maxson explores the fantasy of doing violence to an ostensible murderer: A young male making an on-stand confession unaccountably ends up slumped backward, bleeding, seemingly dead. A vague back-story emerges during technical interruptions, with fractured images of his female apparent victim appearing as if by chance. The audio track is dominated by a sound-drowning buzz, triggering a subtle uneasiness in the viewer. Maxson exposes both our conditioned media expectations and deeper, unacknowledged desires.

In Ben Kinsley's nine-screen video "Marching Band," surveillance cameras show the Langley High School marching band traversing the Miller Gallery's three floors. Though it's a truthful record, the surreal subject matter places the work closer to make-believe than simple document. Meanwhile, Michelle Fried's three-screen video "Stomach Trouble" is equal parts live action, animation and music video. The fabulistic, autobiographically inspired narrative depicts Fried's beleaguered gut, a googly-eyed papier-mâché puppet that grumbles and vomits.

Also blurring the line between reality and make-believe is John Peña's philosophically resigned "Letters to the Ocean." Having written to the Pacific since 2003, Peña displays 1,000 of his unopened letters, each marked with the notoriously wounding "Return to Sender" stamp. Forming a sea themselves, his unappreciated messages seem symbolic of unrequited love. Viewing "Letters" alongside "The Wedding, October 29, 2005" -- a display composed of multiple pages mounted in handmade wooden frames -- makes the notion of reality's painful divergence from fantasy even more poignant.

Ally Reeves calls her work an attempt to bring fantasy to the mundane. "The Look-See Tree," an artificial tree trunk covered in construction-paper bark and filled with fabricated critters, is one example of Reeves' fancifully armed invasion of the ordinary. Hitched to a bicycle, the work regularly travels into public spaces to affably surreal effect.

The notion that art can deny fantasy is inherently provocative; art is, after all, a product of the imagination. Yet within most of these six artists' creative endeavors, there lies a kernel of naked, real-world truth. And this capacity to incite realization -- itself "a moratorium on make-believe" -- is, without question, a characteristic of conceptually progressive work.

 

A Moratorium on Make-Believe continues through April 20. Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-2618

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