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Wednesday, January 11, 2012 / 9:00 AM

Dirty Pretty Things: A Chat with Carrie Becker, the Artist Behind "Barbie Trashes her Dreamhouse"

Dirty Pretty Things: A Chat with Carrie Becker, the Artist Behind "Barbie Trashes her Dreamhouse"

The Kitchen. Courtesy of Carrie M. Becker

Carrie M. Becker is not a hoarder. The south city apartment she shares with her fiancé and a regal cat is clean, airy and sunny, with plenty of happily thriving plants.

You’d be forgiven, though, for assuming that the artist might have a world-class clutter problem. Lately, her photo series “Barbie Trashes Her Dreamhouse” has been garnering a lot of attention—it was featured on Jezebel, Huffington Post,and TIME. The series depicts an utterly trashed and stuff-glutted home that calls to mind the show Hoarders.

Filled though it is, the entire house fits on Becker’s kitchen table. She stocks each room and scene lovingly with the stuff of life, in miniature: a stamp-sized pizza box, a lipstick the size of a grain of rice, an iPhone the size of an infant's thumbnail. Then, she trashes the rooms—the pizza boxes pile up, wee old newspapers accumulate to the side of a tiny laptop, files spill out of drawers and bitty crumpled notes litter the floor.

She’s been making and shooting the miniature scenes for years, as a fun diversion throughout graduate school and work as a commercial photographer. Before a residency at the McColl Center for Visual Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, Becker found herself teaching three classes at St. Louis Community College Forest Park and working 60 hours a week on sculpture for a solo show at the McColl back in her St. Louis apartment.

“This is grad school all over again!” she says of the stress. The scenes started to reflect perhaps a bit of her mind state: “Instead of making fun rooms...” she trails off.

Depending on how you read them, the photos—cop your own prints online at www.etsy.com/shop/carriembecker—can be hilarious or depressing or just intensely clever.

“You could write an entire dissertation about the person who lives here, from a Barbie perspective or just someone who has a problem,” Becker says.

She's not explicitly endorsing either perspective, though. The idea of invoking the world's favorite anorexic fashion plate/astronaut/veterinarian was a bit utilitarian. People didn't realize, looking at the photos, that everything they were looking at and responding to was scaled for hamsters.

“People said, 'Is this your house? Oh girl...' This is why I decided to call it 'Barbie Trashes Her Dreamhouse.' It's been helpful in that way—it makes it a little more political.”

And it's opened Becker's work to one of the three most common criticisms she hears.

“How dare I tarnish the perfect cultural icon; you're making fun of hoarders; This isn't art,” Becker ticks off.

Barbie, she says, could use a little comeuppance, and probably neglects her housework from time to time, like anyone else.

“People have said I'm mocking hoarders—no one has ever asked me if this is catharsis. I'm drawing from real life. I've had my own experiences of stepping over garbage,” she says. “It's not vilifying anyone. You can read into it and form your own opinion. My goal is not to pass judgment.”

As far as the notion that your 8-year-old could make the scenes Becker makes, that notion is trashed within minutes of watching her select miniscule detritus from carefully arranged plastic compartment boxes and arranging them in the diorama with tweezers.

She views every scene through the camera's viewfinder before shooting, and painstakingly rearranges the trash and mess until it's just so—realistic and plausible.

And nothing is random about the placement in any scene. While creating a room and then while trashing it, Becker inhabits a narrative about the person who lives there. Watching her set up a scene, you're drawn in, watching a human life be fleshed out by a creator who clearly cares about them—and thinks they're pretty funny.

Much of the tiny stuff comes from Japan by way of the Internet. A company called ReMent specializes in making little bitty versions of other stuff, like a box of chocolates with fully articulated individual candies, sushi sets, and a pair of pink Birkenstock sandals (tossed aside under a computer chair by our putative and unseen heroine in the heat of a long night of work, of course). Some of the furniture is miniatures made for Barbie or similarly sized toys, though the pink, sparkly surfaces get repainted before Becker shoots them.

In her more academic work, Becker makes sculpture that draws from microscopic images from nature. She resizes and sculpts tiny elements like flagella or worms and sets them in unexpected places, like emerging from a wrecked television or a decaying wall.

“That is a common theme!” she says. “ I'm inspired by tiny things.”

Her solo show from the McColl, “Colonized,” is showing in St. Louis beginning February 6 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art on the campus of the Forest Park Community College, with a gallery talk on Friday, February 10.

The sculpture hasn't been blowing up quite like the tiny shut-in homes, and that's okay with Becker.

“It's not quite as accessible in terms of concept as Barbie,” she says. It's also a newer art form for her, one where she still has room to grow and mature, she says. “If it was to go viral, I'd feel a little phony."

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