The task of teaching children the artistic value of a gigantic cushion cheeseburger, a portrait of Mickey Mouse or a gaggle of hanging yellow rubber duckies is daunting at best. But the Children's Museum of San Diego has risen to the challenge with an exhibition exploring the recurrent themes and iconography of 1950s and 1960s Pop Art titled "POP! Goes the Museum / En el Museo."
Visitors to the museum, located in downtown San Diego near Horton Plaza, are greeted by a newsstand filled with magazines, candy wrappers and collages of pop icons from Mona Lisa to Marilyn Monroe. A large sign poses the question, "Is it art?" Helping children form responses to that question is what this museum-wide exhibition is all about.
The real foundation of "POP! Goes the Museum" is the "Andy Warhol Myths Series and Studio." Touring from the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, this series of seven original silk-screen prints, created in 1981 and exhibited at child-height, includes "Mickey Mouse," "Superman," "Uncle Sam" and "Santa Claus."
The prints are colorful, jumping off the walls like pieces of enticing candy. The museum has supplied magnifying glasses for visitors to inspect the real diamond dust Warhol used to gild his culture gods. Children can also look at the images through kaleidoscopes, mimicking Pop Art's fancy for repetition.
A glass case holds some of the toys and products Warhol grew up with, from comic books to windup toys. These are intended to show what some of Warhol's influences were. There is also a display with some of today's pop icons, including photos of Michael Jordan and Tickle Me Elmo dolls--products and images that may inspire future Warhols. Next door, a silk-screen printmaking studio staffed by volunteers lets children themselves experiment with the artist's style.
In an effort to show the '90s Pop renaissance, the museum commissioned two contemporary San Diego artists to design installations for the exhibition. In Lenore Hughes' "TREEmendous ADventure," the artist has created a forest made completely out of recyclable packaging. Hughes' mixed-media design is made of candy wrappers, cereal boxes, dollar bills and strips of photographs woven into huge trees.
Artist Roman deSalvo has fashioned home furnishings out of standard packaging materials, including Styrofoam, plastic and wood, in his kid-size "Log Cabin Package." There is a bubble wrap sofa, and plastic wrap curtains are fastened to curtain rods using garbage bag twist ties.
By focusing on the manipulation of recyclable product images to make patterns in art, these two artists have injected a dose of '90s environmentalism into Warhol's message. Children can use recyclable plastics and cardboard provided at an art table to make their own home accessories.
Near Hughes' and deSalvo's installations is the "Toddler Pop Palace," created by the design firm of Brown, Florman, Gates with input from early child development expert Dr. David Chadwick.
The walls of the palace are constructed out of piles of diapers and telephone books and stocked with puzzles, puppets and "Dressie Bessie" dolls. Dozens of yellow rubber duckies dangling over the carpeted floor are reminiscent of mobiles hanging over babies' cribs. Parents and children alike frolic in the crib-like space in socked feet as exaggerated pointillist dots on the walls pay homage to the comic-book art of Roy Lichtenstein.
Completing the "POP!" exhibition is a giant foam cheeseburger--not a Claes Oldenburg, although it resembles the works done by that artist. Children seem to enjoy arranging the oversized condiments (pickle, onion, tomatoes and fries) almost as much as anything else. In fact, the hands-on activities are what seem to be most popular on a recent Saturday trip to the museum.
"It's different than the kind of museum I expected," Marilyn Salvatera, 8, of San Diego said. "Usually, you have a lot of sculptures, paintings and things you can't touch. But here, you can look at things, then sit down and do them."
The Warhol gallery, however, seemed lost and empty at the middle of the exhibition. One almost wished it were at the beginning instead, so that it carried the message, "This is the work of the father of the Pop Art movement. Then these are spaces and installations that help explain what inspired him and the legacy he left."
But, back to the original question. Portraits of Mickey Mouse, a collage of cereal boxes and a bubble wrap sofa--is it art? Fred Bingham, 9, of San Diego had these thoughts after seeing the exhibition: "I didn't think this before, but now I see all this stuff here, and I know just about everything is art."
As they pour back outside into the San Diego sun, children may not be all that much wiser about the meaning of the Pop Art movement. (No one I asked seemed very eager to try to define it.) But what they do take with them is probably far more important: that anything can be art, even the things children do.
"POP! Goes the Museum / En el Museo," Children's Museum of San Diego, 200 W. Island Ave., San Diego. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Ends Sept. 30. (619) 233-KIDS. Tickets are $5 per person, $3 for seniors 65 and older, children under 2 free.