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— During his two days at ArtWalk, de Mello took names and e-mail addresses of people he spoke to about his art. Jennifer Woods, the first one I contact, writes me back with characterizations of his work as "a bit disturbing" and "fairly offensive." "He seemed very proud of his work however," she writes, "and was very outgoing to anyone who 'cruised through.' " Woods says she admired "the fact that he...did not really care about what people thought about his work." She found the work "entertaining" but adds, "I am not a five-year-old girl or a sixty-five-year-old lady.... I could see how some people would have been offended."

Before Felicia Morgenstern comments, she wants to know whether de Mello was the Barbie "S&M artist." That's part of the controversy, I reply. To which she suggests several things he might have been doing, including manipulating Barbie in a "misogynistic/sadistic bent." Or "is he exposing women's tendency to self sacrifice, self mutilate and ultimately imprison themselves in...the pursuit of physical perfection?" Morgenstern then asks whether ArtWalk is such an "improper venue" for the Barbie art. "Do we want a Stepford wife white-washed local art scene? Do we want paintings with pearls or do we want art which causes us to stop, think, and yes...possibly shudder?"

Eileen Rubio, who says she is 22, writes that she found de Mello's art to be "original and creative." It " 'spoke' to me.... [And] it was definitely feminist.... I loved it! It makes you think of how women are perceived through society and men. It's so unjust.... Every woman knows this and has felt they have to measure up to standards of beauty [that] society and men created. And this is where insecurity, jealousy, competition arise. I'm sure this art...touched every woman's heart."

Lindsey Gorman believes that the reason de Mello's art created antipathy for "people in our 'beautiful' town of San Diego is that it hits too close to home, to the image that most people are trying to attain, the perfect trophy appearance. His art bluntly expresses just how transparent these people are."

"Oh yes, the Dead Barbie Doll collection," writes Steve Covault. "Good art doesn't have to always be pretty or soothing. Art that is a little disturbing shows us more, and makes us think. The objectification of women, the plastic nature of Southern California culture, etc.... I found his stuff...full of energy and dynamics. Odd, perhaps, but fascinating!"

And Jeremy Norton thought de Mello's work to be "introspective, not done for shock value." At ArtWalk, "It was refreshing to see bizarre stuff. I got sick of seeing 5000 pictures of Italy or flowers."

However, the appearance of Barbie in art is hardly original, a fact that has long irritated the doll's manufacturer, Mattel Inc. According to numerous websites, the company unsuccessfully sued Utah photographer Tom Forsythe for using the doll in his work. A written opinion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a 2001 federal district court decision in favor of Forsythe, said, "Most of Forsythe's photos portray a nude Barbie in danger of being attacked by vintage household appliances."

Eider de Mello considers his use of Barbies mild in comparison with what he has heard others have done. "Some artists have put nails through their bodies," he says. "I know what I do is edgy, but at least I've gotten a strong reaction. That validates what I'm doing. And it's normal for people to dislike some art."

But it's not an aesthetic issue to ArtWalk's Paula Kwast. "It's one thing to go to a gallery where you know what you're going to see," she tells me, "and another to come unexpectedly upon something offensive in a large outdoor exhibit meant for the general public, especially families."

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