Friends of Dorothy

New group show takes off from The Wizard of Oz's yellow brick road
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A piece by Donald Urquhart

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As a child I remember being transfixed by the cover to Electric Light Orchestra's 1974 album Eldorado, A Symphony (Warner Bros.). I think I saw it before I ever actually watched Victor Fleming's 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, from which the album's art is taken. Designer Sharon Arden — now Ozzy Osbourne's wife — was undoubtedly riffing off of the concept album's storyline about a journey through a fantastic land. But she also probably keyed into what caught my young eyes: the primary pop of red, yellow, and green, and the contrast between the girl's glittering, covetable shoes, the ghoulish mint hands that reached toward them, and the shower of sparks that divided the frame.

Looking back now, my fascination with that image almost seems like a joke about gay predestination — even though my pre-teen self knew nothing of Judy Garland or the Cowardly Lion's sissy shtick. But I know I haven't been the first pre-queen or proto-wicked witch to be drawn to those heels. Since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900, and transformed by MGM into the iconic musical four decades later, the peaceable kingdom created by Frank L. Baum has been visited, amended, annexed, redrawn, and reclaimed by readers young and old: friends of Dorothy; contemporary fantasists such as Gregory Maguire and Geoff Ryman; bric-a-brac collectors; librettists; and last but not least, Pink Floyd–loving stoners and artists.

It is that last group whose contributions to the Oz mythos comprise the Wattis Institute's inaugural exhibition for the fall, "The Wizard of Oz." It's not for lack of brains, heart, or courage on the part of curator Jens Heffman that the show is a mixed bag. Granted, exhibits organized around themes are often erratic affairs, but perhaps it is the Oz mythology's chimerical ability to be all things to all people (witness the interpretive turns the novel and film version of Wizard of Oz have been subjected to, from populist allegory to pre–World War II national rallying cry, to '70s fry toy) that makes some responses to it seem odd while allowing others to shine as revelations.

In three tightly-packed rooms, history abuts fantasy and artifacts mingle with reproductions. A fragment of Harry Smith's kaleidoscopic, stop-motion animated remake of Fleming's 1939 film flickers kitty-corner from Walker Evans' portraits of '30s sharecroppers — their ambivalent gazes providing a stoic historic counterpoint to the MGM film's Kansas sequences. Mass-produced '70s-era Scarecrow and Woodsman bookends hold up a rare turn-of-the-century set of all 13 Oz volumes. A playful Oz alphabet mural by Donald Urquhart serves as a primer on the series' significance in postwar gay culture (Q is for Queer Icon; J is for Judy's hand, supposedly severed before her funeral), while William Wallace Denslow's doll-like renderings of Dorothy for the first edition of Baum's book might surprise all those friends of Dorothy accustomed to Garland's oddly mature visage.

Many contributions make overt references to the realm of Oz, yet oblique treatments of the broader themes evoked by the book and film — escape, the power of fantasy, and the uses of nostalgia — result in some of the exhibit's strongest pieces. Evan Holloway's kinetic sculpture Tin Man, in which an ax set in motion by a pulley mechanism takes a small chip off a log, generates discomfort. It does so through the disparity between its pathetic result and the violence of its noisy operation.

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