Marta Thoma’s Stretch sculptures are gigantic, but they all evoke little-girl experiences: playing dress-up, lounging on the floor, clomping around in dad’s shoes, adding frills and decoration to everyday toys. Their hugeness makes them seem straight out of Clifford, Tom Thumb, or some other children’s story featuring whimsical giants; they may be large, but they definitely come across as nonthreatening. At night, projected lights illuminate one of the three figural works (Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes, Stand’n in Dad’s Shoes 1, and Stretch’n in Dad’s Shoes 2), suggesting the internal workings of a nervous system. During the day, the figures simply loom mutely over the office lobby that serves as Gallery 555 (the almost year-old brainchild of the Oakland Museum’s Professional Services Division, which coordinates rotating exhibitions in nonmuseum venues like this and the Oakland Airport). Their meticulously, realistically frilly dress forms and cast-concrete shoes seem dramatically out of place in the otherwise grown-up, impersonal, corporate surroundings, and yet their hugeness also somehow seems appropriate to this larger-than-life space. In fact, many of Gallery 555’s exhibitions have featured gigantic sculptural works, maybe because there aren’t too many other indoor spaces big enough for art on that kind of scale.
Besides the three little-girl figures, Thoma has created two spherical sculptures, one black and one pink-yellowish, that are much more abstract. Each is constructed from cast stone with a “skirt” of wire mesh sewn around its circumference. Onto their surfaces the artist has glued surreal collages of babies, butterflies, car tires, and fractals to create a deliberate cacophony of opposing references: motion and stasis, male and female, juvenile and adult.
Surrealism is clearly a huge influence on Thoma, but her work diverges in fundamental ways from the working methods of the movement’s founders. Her sculptures certainly evoke dreams and dream imagery, but they also manifest a real deliberateness and calculation that makes it impossible to regard them as the products of automatism (the Surrealists’ experimental writing and visual-art method in which the rational mind was not allowed to interfere). Her odd juxtapositions of babies and tires, for instance, or concrete and wire mesh, come across as quite intentional, rather than accidental and fortuitous — more like recipes for strange childhood dreams than the actual thing. Mainly it’s because of the scale and media in which she works, which preclude the possibility of creating spontaneously and unconsciously.
A lot of critical hay could be made out of Thoma’s use of gigantism: references to Alice in Wonderland, Jack and the Beanstalk, and dramatic, stomach-churning disparities in scale between reality and perception. But even though we may recognize the potential of work like this to disorient the viewer, it’s also unrealistic to expect people to encounter these sculptures and actually be fooled into thinking they’ve shrunk. More appropriate is a reading that takes into account our awareness of the gap between the effect we are “supposed” to experience and the actual effect.
And if we assume that Thoma is too savvy to think that these sculptures could literally make us loopy, then how did she intend us to react? With a sense of mourning, maybe, over our inability to experience them more viscerally. As we age, our critical-thinking skills overtake our ability to immerse ourselves in fantasy, until the time is past when we could lay on our backs, pretend that the ceiling was really the floor, and walk around on it, dodging light fixtures and stepping over doorframes. Thus, even though Thoma’s works contain elements of dreams, childhood imagery, and the like, they’re also about the loss of these things. They are both fantastic apparitions and memorials for our capacity to perceive them as such.