Swat Team 

What do all these little bugs and robots mean? Uh, don't ask.

Even when they're three inches high, the robots, bugs, and mechanical dogs of Joyce Hsu look enormous. They have a sense of scale. Best of all, they don't stand alone like a row of knickknacks -- they interact with each other in a kind of swarm. That's probably because they're installations, not just isolated sculptures. Take Hsu's Bobby (1998), in which a sort of skeletal anthropomorphic airplane standing upright on two legs towers over a ground crew of little dogs and spaceboy robots with jet packs on their backs. Exploring The World of Joyce Hsu: A Site-Specific Installation of Dogs, Daisies, and Flying Objects is a little like blundering into an eight-year-old's bedroom. So much to see, so little time, and what does it all mean?

"They're pretty scary stuff when you analyze it," admits the San Francisco artist in a phone call. "If they were life-size we'd be threatened. The question is why we like that kind of art, how we respond." Indeed, Hsu's menagerie of critters and thingamabobs, presumably inspired by her childhood in Hong Kong amid Hello Kitty and My Melody toys, has a vaguely sinister undertone to it. She planned it that way. Although the doodads have a basic cheerful whimsicality, her materials are not typically soft and cuddly. "I use plywood, steel frame, foam, polyethylene. Some of the materials are rather dangerous. Where does the cuteness come from?" Hsu asks rhetorically. The subtext of her creatures is, in her words, "a control issue. Wanting to find a perfect friend or companion. These are conditional companions. If you grew up with cartoons, they're easy to accept." Like for instance if Bobby decided to jump off a cliff and suddenly started to fly, or when the Mothra-like Damn Bug (2001-02) blinks its light-eyes and flexes its 22-inch wingspan.

You can get up close and personal with Hsu's MooGeGae and the rest of the gang -- if you dare -- beginning Sunday at Walnut Creek's Bedford Gallery, inside the Lesher Regional Center for the Arts (1601 Civic Dr.). The show runs through March 27, and there's a reception Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. DLRCA.org

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