The pastel walls that serve as the backdrop for "Children of the Playhouse" ooze 90s nostalgia. Credit: Sunshine Tucker

Upon entering the Pilsen gallery Present, it’s hard to miss an old-fashioned fridge covered with neon alphabet magnets, the most prominent of which spell out “open me.” Inside the icebox is a bright and colorful video of dancing hot dogs squiggling their way through heads of lettuce and blocks of cheese. If all that sounds like something out of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, well, it should: the piece, by the New York-based artist duo Lazy Mom, is part of the Pee-Wee-inspired exhibit “Children of the Playhouse.”

There’s nothing subtle about the environment that curators Stella Brown, Harry Kuttner, and Emily Sher are trying to create. The space (which actually is someone’s house) oozes early-90s nostalgia. The organizers know the era well: the trio grew up during the late 80s and early 90s, and they’ve invited other artists to assist them in fashioning a playhouse of their own.

“It’s not that we’re all obsessed with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” Sher says. “It’s just that that root can inspire so much.”

In fact, the initial inspiration for “Children of the Playhouse” didn’t come from the bizarre children’s television show but rather Leslie Buchbinder’s documentary Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists. Gary Panter, an artist interviewed in the film, was one of the set designers on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and from there Brown continued drawing connections between the television show and the outsider artists of the 60s and 70s.

“[The artists featured in the exhibit] are mostly people our age,” Brown says, “but there are also four artists that are our parents’ age. It’s another connection [with] the Hairy Who and the Imagists generation. We intentionally included some people of another generation to link it, because it’s not like we’re inventing this—it’s been going on.”

The result is an exhibit that is much more dynamic than a simple re-creation of the television-show set. While some items, like Lazy Mom’s refrigerator, are over-the-top and playful, others, like a woven canvas by Moira Quinn O’Neil, are indicative of how an adult might pull from the colorful worlds of Pee-Wee and the Imagists to decorate his den. There’s a sense that, despite some outlandish color combinations and nonfunctional art pieces (like an oversize tower resembling a game of Jenga), someone could really inhabit this warped living space.

Along with the gallery showing, Present will be screening Hairy Who and the Imagists (Thursday, April 28), hosting a Pee-Wee-themed supper club (Thursday, May 5), and providing a library of zines and art books for patrons to sit and enjoy in the brightly painted nooks of the exhibit. “We want it to be interactive, where people can play,” Brown says, “because that’s what you do at Pee-Wee’s playhouse.  v