Consider this: Before the puppetmaker Geppetto ever wished upon a star, before he prayed for a real child to replace the wooden Pinocchio, what if he had weighed -- and I mean seriously -- the pros and cons of this request? Geppetto might have realized that the heartache -- his own, his son's -- just wasn't worth it.
Artist Luis Silva thinks about that kind of stuff. The 40-year-old American University professor revives mythical stories of transformation -- Daphne, for instance, who became a laurel tree to escape the amorous Apollo -- to examine animate and inanimate worlds. In a charming but uneven solo exhibition of video, painting and photography at G Fine Art, he makes it clear that neither the real world nor the doll world is the perfect place to be.
Silva found his modern-day Pinocchios in the windows of department stores. His occasionally brilliant 17-minute, three-channel DVD "Daphne and the Blue Angels" is the centerpiece of this show, and it suggests that the mannequins inhabiting department store vitrines, like a certain wooden doll in Geppetto's workshop, yearn for life. Although no clear-cut transformation ever takes place, longing inhabits nearly every frame. Silva has managed to craft a convincing, if rambling, narrative by coupling real and computer-generated footage with an evocative soundtrack. (In a sly reference to "Pinocchio," it includes snatches of "When You Wish Upon a Star.")
By Silva's reckoning, dummies don't long to be genuine, 5-foot-3, size 10 women who gaze into -- and smudge -- shop windows. Instead, they yearn to take a half-step toward bona fide life, to enter a netherworld between real and unreal. They want to be runway models.
Silva's video begins with reverent shots of shop window mannequins -- some with bald heads, some headless, some armless -- modeling the season's latest fashions. This is rich territory. Silva's unblinking lens transforms them into a silent army yearning to breathe free. Set to mournful passages from Mozart's Requiem, the footage evokes imprisonment behind glass.
The camera soon alights on an overly made-up mannequin of the Marshalls or JC Penney ilk. She wears a thick head of auburn hair like a bad wig; her eyes are rimmed in smoky shadow and her lashes are thick with mascara. Of all the mannequins Silva catalogues, she most approximates a real woman -- albeit one channeling Tammy Faye Bakker.
Silva's lens pores over her precision-molded body, as if animating her with its gaze. Relishing each curve of the dummy's painted collarbone and spindly, shiny fingers, Silva's visual caresses would make Pygmalion proud. Shot in sepia tones that recall Old Master paintings, the footage is rich with references to art history. (Elsewhere, Silva focuses on a bald mannequin whose ovoid head and gently articulated nose and mouth recall a stylized Brancusi sculpture.) He reveals not only the art in fashion but also the longing behind his dummy's glass eyes.
Eventually, Silva's video cuts to footage of sprightly runway models strutting for the camera. These, in turn, are interspersed with split-second close-ups of real people. The video's tragic climax pits the real and the unreal side by side. Loving shots of the immobile Ms. Mannequin juxtaposed with the jiggling girls render her inanimate world doubly mournful. But the unpolished shots of real-life human faces make her plastic coldness seem almost beautiful.
To tie threads of his other works into "Daphne and the Blue Angels," Silva tucked non-mannequin-related footage -- of a verdant, computer-generated fairyland, of a crowd of tiny plastic toys, of real people digitally morphed -- into the narrative arc of his video. These shots are meant to introduce themes treated in the paintings, digital photographs and three additional videos that make up the rest of this exhibition. But their appearance, to my eye, interrupts Silva's clever fairy tale.
The rest of his works at G Fine Art never matches the virtuosity of his "Daphne" video. At one end of the spectrum, Silva looks at toy figurines. A wall covered with 105 photographic portraits of tiny plastic toys, each digitally enhanced by the artist to bring out certain colors or facial expressions, is a barrage of grins and bright hues. The wall is a workout for the eyes, which dart from one work to the next with no rest in sight. While the works are eye-popping and charming, I'm not sure this lively interaction presents enough to satisfy. These are caricatures, not characters, and their strength is their rapid-fire surfaces. When Silva slows them down, as he's done in three slow-motion videos morphing one figurine into the next -- he strains the limits of cute.
But what of living, breathing human beings, warts and all? Silva's paintings of real people -- his friends and family, mostly -- don't look particularly appealing, either. Painted on unprimed wood or on a coating of shiny blue enamel, each sitter has been altered so his or her features are stretched lengthwise. Although they're not distorted to the point of caricature, the resulting demi-grotesques don't exactly make a case for being human. Their orange faces are inflected with gray. Their expressions are unguarded and unflattering. At best, these pictures serve as a warning to the department store mannequins yearning to breathe free: Ladies, be careful what you wish for.
Daphne and the Blue Angels, by Luis Silva, at G Fine Art, 3271 M St. NW, Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-333-0300, through May 10.