Recently, artist/troll extraordinaire Richard Prince made headlines for selling prints of other people’s Instagram photos in a solo show at Gagosian Gallery for $100,000 each, all without permission. One of the most striking and well-circulated of those photos features a blue-haired woman with cherry-red cupid lips, holding a porcelain mini-me doll in a matching white frock.
That blue-haired doll and her creator have a rich and eccentric story, as her 45.6K Instagram followers know, and as the rest of the art world is beginning to discover. Called Pidgin, the “World’s Most Glamorous Doll,” she’s a modern take on the classic European fashion doll, handmade by Bushwick-based artist Joshua David McKenney. 23-inches long and sold for up to $2,000 apiece to doll and art collectors, her fans include Grace Jones (whom the chameleonic Pidgin has emulated); Dita von Teese, for whom McKenney made a customized paper doll; Mariah Carey; and luxury eyewear designer Linda Farrow. McKenney’s goal is to make his doll a “high-fashion icon,” a kind of inanimate supermodel, which would take the fashion industry’s much-lamented objectification of women to its logical extreme.
With lavender hair and sparkly gold sneakers, Joshua McKenney bears little trace of his conservative Mennonite upbringing in Pennsylvania. His studio, located in the Bushwick artist-hive CastleBraid, is decorated with disembodied Pidgin heads, a mermaid-tailed Barbie emerging from a cow skull’s eyehole, and a Miss Piggy toy. Bags of plastic eyeballs litter the work surfaces, and a 5-foot-tall sex doll named Bambi hangs from the ceiling, dressed in a bathrobe (“She’s never been used,” McKenney claims). As a child, “I wasn’t allowed to play with dolls,” he says, and was thrilled when his mother gave him both a Kermit the Frog and a Miss Piggy toy to play with. Obviously, he paid no attention to Kermit. “I thought Miss Piggy was so beautiful and glamorous.” It wasn’t until he moved to New York at 18 to study fashion illustration at Parsons that he found freedom to express himself, eventually creating a kind of language out of doll design.
Indeed, Pidgin’s name means “language,” after the type of simplified speak that evolves when two groups who don’t share the same tongue improvise communication. “Pidgin is how I communicate the strongly feminine parts of myself,” McKenney says. “I think part of the reason she’s become the face of the Prince controversy is that wordlessly, that Instagram photo says a lot about what it means to be a modern person who identifies with the feminine.” In the sense that it’s a very literal documentation of a woman painting her face and dressing up in pursuit of doll-like perfection, it really does. (For more examples of this, see TLC’s reality horror show “I’m a Living Doll.“) Pidgin’s blue-haired human doppelganger, Doe Deere, is McKenney’s friend and CEO of Lime Crime makeup company, for whom McKenney made a little doll clone. Deere’s Instagram portrait was “a tribute to Pidgin.” The portrait of Pidgin and this modelesque CEO reflects McKenney’s goal to “cement Pidgin as a high-end fashion icon, maybe form a relationship with a department store.” It’s a controversial idea–creating an invincible supermodel, with zero pores and longer legs and a tinier waist than any human fashion model could possibly attain–but using a doll as a covergirl wouldn’t be a first for the magazine industry.
The Instagram photo also communicates McKenney’s philosophy about doll-making for grownups, something that, for him, speaks to the relationship between art and play. “Doe Deere and I are both adults with companies and brands, and we also play with dolls, which people think of as children’s toys, but that’s not how we feel about them.” Most kids use toys, whether they’re Barbies or action figures, to act out elaborate fantasies. With Pidgin, McKenney suggests this type of play shouldn’t have to stop in adulthood. “Dolls are such a great way for adults to express themselves and get ideas out,” he says. “It can be a really sophisticated and beautiful thing. In our society, dolls are just seen as children’s toys, but I’m trying to elevate the whole concept. I want to change people’s minds about what a fashion doll can be.”
The attention he’s gotten from the Prince scandal might aid in that effort. In the wake of the episode, McKenney is a little dazed, but forgiving. “I’m not angry at Prince,” he says. “In many ways, it’s an honor to have the image called out.” He doesn’t plan to take any legal action against the lawyered-up art star, instead hoping the debate will “start a conversation about what art is.”
In that vein, he’s careful to point out that Pidgin is an art piece, “not a toy, not for children.” It takes him four to six weeks to make a single doll. Cast from resin, hand-painted, and dressed in hand-stitched costumes, she’s not designed to be dragged to the playground or buried in the bottom of a toy chest. But the line between entertainment and art can get blurry, and many artists describe their working processes as a form of play. As a dollmaker, McKenney just makes this play a bit more literal. “I try to keep her very magical. She’s a muse,” he says.
Though the emphasis is on artistry, Pidgin has a long line of ancestors in the world of children’s dolls–McKenney says his doll draws inspiration from vintage Barbie, with her puckered lips and giant eyes. And critics of Barbie’s insane proportions won’t have any easier a time with Pidgin, whose near-invisible waist and mile-long legs are slightly alien-looking. But McKenney defends her highly stylized body. “I’m a big advocate of stylizing dolls. They need to be stylized in order to look pleasant,” he says, going so far as to criticize the Lammily Doll, which creator Nicholay Lamm based on the proportions of an average 19-year-old human girl, as “unattractive.” That being said, “Pidgin is certainly not supposed to be what humans should aspire to look like.” Even if a photo of a human aspiring to look like her will sell for $100,000.
(Click the slideshow above for more photos.)
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