Arts

Making art history come alive... with Play-Doh

Photos by Diane Arbus and Gordon Parks are on display now at the AGO, but you've never seen them like this

Cindy Sherman Eleanor Macnair

Original photograph: Cindy Sherman. Untitled film still #21, 1978. Rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair, 2015. (Eleanor Macnair)

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Name: Eleanor Macnair

Handle: @eleanormacnair

Eleanor Macnair makes art that's non-irritating, non-allergenic and 100 per cent non-toxic. Play-Doh is her medium of choice, and since 2013 she's interpreted art-history's greatest photographs with the colourful clay.

Original photograph: Kamaitachi #23, 1965 by Eikoh Hosoe rendered in play-doh

A photo posted by Eleanor Macnair (@eleanormacnair) on

Original photograph: Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida, 1947 by Toni Frissell rendered in play-doh

A photo posted by Eleanor Macnair (@eleanormacnair) on

Thanks to her tumblr — the straightforwardly titled Photographs Rendered in Play-Doh — this part-time artist from London has earned acclaim, publishing a book of the same name in 2014 and illustrating for various publications (perhaps you've seen her Play-Doh coverage of the Oscars?). This spring, she's a judge for the Getty Images Instagram Grant and she's also exhibiting photos of her sculptures worldwide. (Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles, by the way, is currently showing her work through April 16.)

On Instagram, though, Macnair shares her whole process.

In progress...

A video posted by Eleanor Macnair (@eleanormacnair) on

Her tools are whatever you'd have in your kitchen cupboard: a cutting board, an empty wine bottle for a rolling pin. (No sign of a Fun Factory or Mop Top Hair Shop, though.)

And just like when you were in kindergarten, once a picture is finished, she squishes every doughy tree, skyscraper or eyelash back in the can before it dries up.

Like a moment caught on camera, these images are fleeting. "I like the fact that they are ephemeral," Macnair tells CBC Arts by e-mail, "I'm the only one who sees them in their 3D state."

Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ Diane Arbus

Original photograph: Diane Arbus. Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967. Rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair, 2015. (Eleanor Macnair/www.artfund.org)

She's recreated photographs by Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin and Gordon Parks — but they're something altogether different from the original prints, which you can view right now at Toronto's AGO. (All three are featured in their new exhibition, Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950s-1980s.)

Nan Goldin and Eleanor Macnair

Original photograph: Nan Goldin. Nan, one month after being battered, 1984. Rendered in Play-Doh by Eleanor Macnair, 2015. (Eleanor Macnair/www.tate.org.uk)

When Macnair makes one of her sculptures, black-and-white photographs are rendered in "lurid colour."

It's pretty much impossible to black and white Play-Doh, but there's more to it than that. On the Internet you need a load of crazy colour if you're going to capture the world's diminishing attention span.

"Viewers then hopefully go on to discover and appreciate the original photograph," Macnair says, and every post on her blog links back to the source material. Every image is an invitation to fall down a rabbit hole of art history.

It's both jarring and delightful to see a Cindy Sherman or a Man Ray or a William Eggleston rolled out of childhood craft supplies, and looking at Macnair's pictures, you'll no doubt question how well you remember the original. Each post begs a repeat viewing, both of the source photo and its Play-Doh double.

Original photograph: Young Farmers, 1914 by August Sander rendered in Play-Doh ps Happy New Year!

A photo posted by Eleanor Macnair (@eleanormacnair) on

In terms of what you can learn about Canadian art, Vancouver's Jeff Wall gets the Play-Doh treatment. Check out Macnair's take on "A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)."

Original photograph: A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993 by Jeff Wall rendered in Play-Doh

A photo posted by Eleanor Macnair (@eleanormacnair) on

We're anticipating Play-Doh portraits of Scandinavian voyageurs on her Instagram any day now, because just like CBC Arts, Macnair is a major fan of Toronto's Naomi Harris, particularly her series, EUSA.

"I love [Edward] Burtynsky," she says of the recent Governor General's Award recipient, though we're less hopeful for a recreation of anything from the Water series. "Some things don't work well in Play-Doh," says Macnair, "like landscapes and open mouths. You'll notice that the mouths in all my portraits are closed."

Original photograph: Leonard (Red) Jackson, Harlem, 1948 by Gordon Parks rendered in play-doh

A photo posted by Eleanor Macnair (@eleanormacnair) on

"There are millions and millions of photographs in the world," says Macnair, so when she mines museum archives for inspiration, she tries to create a balance — paying attention to different subjects and composition, and also mixing contemporary photographs with what you'll find in the history books.

Says Macnair: "I'm really interested in our consumption of images every day and how many we view without really looking."

Social media can be so much more than selfies and viral videos — it's increasingly becoming a scratch pad for emerging artists and other creative minds to show off their latest work. Artstagram curates the best visual talent on Instagram, helping bring a little more art into your daily feed.​

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