Dollhouses are neat little homes over which we have complete control. They are stages for enacting our hopes and our neuroses.
What adult still plays with dollhouses? Artists do — and collectors, and animators who use small-scale sets. All of these have work in “Small Obsession: Artists’ Dollhouses,’’ an exhibit up at the Somerville Museum through June 25.
“Small Obsession,’’ organized by curator Carolyn Wirth, has the opportunity to be wonderfully creepy, but it only attains that height occasionally. The crossover from art to collecting doesn’t work. Good artists deal in metaphors; they intend to provoke thought. Collectors treasure their collections, but they don’t necessarily make bold leaps to draw meaning from them.
Not everything here is a dollhouse, although most pieces are small. My favorite works in the show are Marielle Sinclair’s hair-raising mixed-media sculptures, miniature critters she fashions from wire, beads, hair, and fur. “ItchyItchyItchy’’ is an insect with a shiny black thorax and abdomen, and an oversize furry black head, completely covered with unblinking yellow eyes. “Not So Velveteen Rabbit’’ looks half-decayed, with its hide giving way to crust and fiber beneath.
Sinclair’s small-scale pieces have a jewel-like quality; they pull you in for a closer look. Then they horrify you.
Nearby, four videos run on a loop. Jeff Sias has a 1994 stop-motion animation, “A Look Through the Keyhole,’’ about a boy lured into a house by “The Witch (of Lust),’’ and that witch is on view in the flesh, as a terribly bloated puppet with long, stalky limbs and a jutting, aquiline face. Her mode of transport is a wheelbarrow. Utterly spooky.
Sias made “Keyhole’’ when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. More recently, he and Bryan Papciak, his partner at the Waltham-based film collective Handcranked Film, created a Muppet Babies animation for their client “Sesame Street,’’ another of the videos up and running in Somerville. Muppets were filmed in live action and then digitally composited into dollhouse-size sets, as a promo for the DVD series “Sesame Beginnings.’’ The Muppets piece is far more benign than “A Look Through the Keyhole,’’ but it’s still impressive, especially with the model for Grandma Cookie Monster’s living room nearby.
“White Room’’ is a different kind of tiny house by Sharon Pierce. It’s a wooden box with a peephole; there’s no getting inside. But you can look, and see a chair and a hallway with light pouring down it. The sealed-off, minuscule interior compellingly suggests unaccessed portions of the self.
Several small handmade house forms are unfortunately clustered together — the grouping dulls the effect of the iconography. Napoleon Jones-Henderson’s houses sift through African-American history; by bringing tales of injustice to the shape of a shelter, he creates shrines of reclamation. Joyce Audy Zarins likewise takes on political themes in “Sustainability,’’ a small, winged cabin made of wood. It tilts up on the verge of takeoff, suggesting that living a green life can send you to heaven.