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— Offense, too, is in the eye of the beholder. On April 29 and 30, the Imperial Beach Art Guild sent eight members to display their work at Little Italy's ArtWalk San Diego. The guild's president, Kelly Tracy, received an e-mail nine days later from ArtWalk's event manager. "The real reason I'm writing," said Paula Kwast, after dropping several pleasantries, "is that I would like to talk to you about one of your artists that I have received numerous complaints about. He is the gentleman with the blue hair (can you please tell me his name?).... I've had phone calls from attendees and other artists who felt that his art involving the Barbie dolls was a little over the top.

"Granted I did not actually see what was going on, so I am taking this information from others, but from what I have heard he was shooting naked Barbies into rat traps. I know that there are different forms of art and different values, but since I have received complaints about his art, can you please make sure that he does not do anything like this again if he will be participating next year? I know this is getting into the area of freedom of expression, but I don't want to cause any problems with other artists, attendees or yourself. I hope you understand."

The artist in question was Eider de Mello of Chula Vista. When I call Kwast, she says that several of those upset by de Mello were mothers with little girls. "The girls had Barbie dolls," she says, "and were upset with what they saw." But the only complainer willing to go public with his views is painter Mark Donnelly, who displayed his works at ArtWalk two booths away from de Mello's.

"I tried to ignore what was going on and focus my attention on speaking with the people visiting my booth," Donnelly tells me. "But I did glance over and see [de Mello] holding up a naked Barbie and a rattrap. That didn't affect me much. What bothered me was that, little by little as the day wore on, stuff started trickling out of his booth into the street. As a first-time participant in ArtWalk, I was trying to follow all the rules. And the rules require you to stay in the ten-by-ten-foot booth you are provided. They do allow you to sit in a folding chair outside your booth so that visitors can get closer to the art. But [de Mello] had wagons and all kinds of things piled in the middle of the street, making his space about four times the size we'd all paid for. The booths lined the sides of the street, and we were supposed to keep the middle clear for foot traffic."

Donnelly says that he did look up one other time to see de Mello scampering in and out of his booth. "He was wearing what looked like a Viking helmet," says Donnelly, "with dolls' legs sticking out of it instead of horns." As for de Mello's art, some people coming from his booth "did think [it] was obscene," says Donnelly. "They were saying things like 'Let's get the kids out of here.' Other people were saying that he wasn't selling his art, only trying to get attention. Then I want to know, 'For what?' Is he promoting something?"

On a visit to de Mello's studio in Spring Valley, I learn that the artist considers "performance" to be a big part of his art. He did go to ArtWalk to make sales, he says, selling two ceramic doll heads. I bring up the rattraps. "I wasn't 'shooting' Barbies into traps," says de Mello, "but using the traps to fling the Barbies across the street. To me that's what society does to women today."

The 44-year-old de Mello, who came to the United States when he was 5, makes his living constructing custom water displays. On the inside of his left arm is a long scar inflicted by a sheet of wire meshing. De Mello speaks rapidly, and his six-foot-four-inch frame seems never to stay still.

"People bring me most of the materials I use to create my art," de Mello tells me, "old Barbies, Barbie parts, doll heads of all kinds, tin and wooden boxes, and lots of other junk. I use a lot of wire too." A future project, says de Mello, will be to pay homeless people to bring him things they find on the street. "I want to get them involved in a found-object sculpture."

The pieces de Mello is showing me in his studio look as if they already belong in that category. I ask if any of the pieces he showed at ArtWalk are here to see. De Mello shows me a sculpture he calls Two Left Feet. It features a lantern with a plastic doll head on top of it. Below the lantern dangle a pair of small tennis shoes turned outward away from each other. "It's all about the clumsiness we all feel at times," says de Mello.

The assembled figures filling the studio leave me seeing only a welter of indistinguishable debris fragments. But de Mello focuses my gaze on a piece he calls The Bouncing Bungee Barbie in Bondage. "People can think S&M if they want to," he tells me, "but they're misreading it. We're all in bondage to our issues: alcohol, drugs, sex, whatever it might be." Another sculpture is called Trammeled. It appears to display a Barbie hanging by her neck. Looking more closely, however, one can see that the impression comes from the doll's head being encased in a small box, more of de Mello's "trapped" symbolism.

Males are not absent in de Mello's work, but they seem to find their meaning in relation to the females. He shows me a caged male figure with a "robot head" ascending a ladder, the infamous corporate ladder, of course. "Notice that his colleague there [a smaller doll] is mangled," says de Mello. At the sculpture's apex, the aspiration of the climb, stands a Barbie, also in a cage. "It's the trophy wife, what women are tortured to look like. The man is saying, 'I can buy you a bigger house, spoil you more than the next guy.' But she's in a bait trap, stuck too."

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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