Zooguu Faux Taxidermy by Jen Bennett Gubicza, part of the Art of Cute exhibit at the Brick Store Museum, which opened on May 1 and runs through August. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

KENNEBUNK — The concept of cute gets complete consideration at the Brick Store Museum.

With toys, dolls, paintings, prints, comic strips and commercial items, like a bubble-shaped early iMac computer and a Vespa scooter, the exhibition “The Art of Cute” takes a serious look an aesthetic often verboten in serious art. The art world tends to shun cute and beauty, but the curators from the Portland-based Illustration Institute sought out abundant cuteness for this show. The exhibition explores some of the science behind why we are drawn to cuteness and how cuteness surfaces in our design culture.

Some images are endearing, others are creepy. Some are political, while others are meant simply to make us smile and laugh. “What was really satisfying about pulling this show together is the range and diversity of expression within the realm of cute,” said co-curator Scott Nash, who also co-founded the Illustration Institute. “I have to admit to being playfully provocative with this one.”

Cute resonates with Nash as a designer and illustrator, as a spice that he can use in his books that he writes and illustrates or the toys that he designs and creates. It offers opportunity for a range of emotional expression, he said. There are lot of bunny ears in this show and lots of big, bulging eyes. There are unnerving paintings of animals with human features, a game of Cooties (“an exciting educational game for all ages”) and a collection of collectible dolls and trinkets from “Game of Thrones.”

Museum director Cynthia Walker said “The Art of Cute” fits perfectly within the museum’s mission of expanding its reach and strengthening its standing as the community’s prominent cultural institution. It recently began a $2 million capital campaign, and people visiting the museum for this exhibition will notice improvements. There’s a new front entrance on Main Street, designed to bring more visibility to the museum, and the gallery spaces have been improved throughout, including refinished floors. There’s a new front desk to go along with the entrance, and the second-biggest change may be the removal of the gigantic central staircase, sometimes called the “Gone with the Wind” stairs, that was planted in the center of a gallery in the mid-1990s.

Miffy Night Light, right, and cute fashion, from the collection of Olwyn Moxhay, are part of the “Art of Cute” exhibit at the Brick Store Museum. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

There’s a pink bunny there now.

The museum is planning traveling exhibitions to local schools and community organizations, and the collection is being digitized for online access. It’s all part of a plan to bring more people into the museum and create opportunities for the museum and its collection to go out into the community, Walker said. The museum opened in 1936 in a general store made of bricks. It has expanded into a series of connected buildings over the years, and now includes galleries in four buildings.

The museum is about halfway toward its $2 million goal, with the public portion of the campaign set to begin this summer. “We’re seeking support from anyone who believes in the power of understanding history to improve our future,” Walker said.

She called “The Art of Cute” unexpected. The Brick Store Museum is seen mostly as a place to interpret history. This show will surprise people and grab their attention, she hopes. It’s the first time she can recall an exhibition that has been installed in all the galleries linked on the ground-floor level. “We all think we know what cute means,” she said. “In my mind, I was thinking puppies and kittens and all the rest. But when the work started to come in, some of it was – the word ‘creepy’ comes to mind.”

Co-curator Olwyn Moxhay did the research for “The Art of Cute,” identifying contemporary artists and artists through time who have used cuteness as a motif – Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs are a good example, though Koons is not represented in this show. The more she began looking, the more she found. “Cute is everywhere. I am drawn to it and most people are, but I’ve never really thought about the psychology behind why we are drawn to cute things and never really thought about it as aesthetic in art,” she said.

There’s a strong international undercurrent in the exhibition, with several pieces from Japanese artists and a comic strip by the Argentinian illustrator Ricardo “Liniers” Siri, who draws the strip “Macanudo.” Coincidentally, the Press Herald recently added the strip to its comics. The inclusion of the “Macundo” comics in the exhibition was planned before the newspaper added the strip, Nash said.

Moxhay drew on artists from Maine and elsewhere across the United States. She includes a series of plates with cute animals by Portland ceramic artist Ayumi Horie, satirical and witty paintings by sign painter and illustrator Patrick Corrigan and a “LOVE” poster by the late Robert Indiana. Nancy Gibson-Nash, the co-founder of the Illustration Institute, includes an array of mixed-media wall hangings that are full of surprise and delight. Local illustrator Michael Connor offers a fantastical painting called “A Bump the Grass” that might depict the scariest lawn bug ever, with wild eyes, teeth and horns.

Cover Up, a mixed media piece by Sally Mavor. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The exhibition is divided into three degrees of cute: normative cute, which responds to our instincts to nurture and control; meta cute, in which artists imbue their art with an edge of irony, humor and surrealism; and applied cute, which references many commercial aspects of cute.

In this section of the show we see the iMac and Vespa, and plenty of pink. In the wall notes for the exhibition, the curators write, “Cute is not mainstream but rather a counter-cultural choice” for designers and collectors. “Collectors of cute design are outliers and iconoclasts who choose to live with products that elicit joy and playfulness over the usual definitions of form and function,” they write.

Until this exhibition in Kennebunk, most of the exhibitions of the Illustration Institute have been at the Portland Public Library. “The Art of Cute” represents an expansion of the geographic footprint of the Illustration Institute and indicates the energy with which it is approaching its work in 2019. The institute has grown quickly and is working to finish construction of a new studio at its Peaks Island headquarters, where the Nashes reside.

The institute is entering its third summer offering storytelling residencies for illustrators, animators and writers under the Faison Residency. It is named for local residents John and Marilyn Faison, who in 2017 offered the Peaks property to the institute for $1, provided the Illustration Institute can raise $500,000 to sustain the work over time. Gibson-Nash said the institute has raised $350,000 so far. The 900-square-foot studio should be completed this month.

The residency invites “masters in the field” to Maine to make work, conduct workshops and deliver lectures. This year, among those who are coming to Peaks are Caldecott-winning author and illustrator Chris Raschka, New Yorker illustrator Mark Ulriksen, muralist and illustrator Katie Yamasaki and Ekua Holmes, who won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award this year for “The Stuff of Stars” and in 2018 for “Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets.”

It’s long been said that Maine is the land of hidden treasures and where artistic greatness abounds in unlikely places. We see some of that in “The Art of Cute,” where the enthusiasm of a small community museum and the vision new arts group has resulted in an exhibition that might make you laugh – or cringe.

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