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Consciousness Raising

'Phenobarbiedoll' Revisits a Childhood Scarred by Epilepsy


Born with epilepsy, artist Corey Stein hid her illness so well that when relatives once saw her body convulse in a grand mal seizure at a family barbecue, they thought she had choked on a carrot and began the Heimlich maneuver.

"I wanted to hide a lot growing up," said the 37-year-old Stein, whose latest works are on display at the Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. "I was paranoid and afraid people would find out I wasn't normal, that I was sick and had epilepsy."

When she was a child, only her immediate family knew of her affliction.

Her art gave her a place to hide.

"The Adventures of Phenobarbiedoll" is the Los Angeles artist's first show that comes to terms with a disorder she long repressed.

"This whole project is like the ending of the epilepsy experience," Stein said.

The exhibition is a survey of a life disrupted by a health disorder since childhood, shown through 40 paintings, drawings and sculptures.

The exhibition flows like a visual stream of consciousness. Think "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" on downers--bright toys, shiny fabrics and colorful stories undercut by a child's jarring experiences.

Having begun taking the anti-seizure drug phenobarbital when she was a toddler, Stein has associated the world of shiny-happy Barbie dolls with her drug-addled life. The fusion created a whole series of puns starring Phenobarbiedoll and her friends.

"One of the things that links the works is the feeling that Stein was not like other people as a child because of her experience with epilepsy," said Deborah Aschheim, co-curator of the exhibition and acting director of the Cal State Fullerton Main Art Gallery.

"The work has a deliberate naive quality, given Corey's interest in folk art and the references she makes," Aschheim said. "She's taking disturbing experiences she had as a child, processing them and interpreting them as an adult."

Blending folk art with commercial popular culture, Stein uses whimsical images and puns to create a complex yet personal world of symbols.

Like the Phenobarbiedoll series, the "Hot Dog on a Stick/Hair in a Bun" series is a word and visual pun on hairdos. Stein, who is Jewish, explores ideas of vanity, Jewish culture and identity with the fast-food franchise. She lumps "Jew-Dos," Sammy Davis Jr. and the Pillsbury Doughboy into this series.

At the time she created it, Stein's hair had been shaved for a surgical procedure that was to cure her of epilepsy.

"Her work has a deceptively simple experience, like 'Hot Dog on a Stick,' " Aschheim said. "So it looks like it's cartoony and irrelevant to a casual observer, but when you get further into the piece there's a dense language there."

Stein searched for answers about her disorder in books because her parents didn't talk about it, she said. To her horror, the Time-Life books on epilepsy from the 1960s she read fed her fears and found their way into "Woman Fixing Herself," a series of life-size sculptures that graphically depict Stein's feelings that she had been violated by the medical profession.

Fascinated yet terrified, Stein had learned in her youth that epileptics could be sterilized involuntarily. The title of the series, which is intended for adults only, is a wordplay on "fix" as a term for "spay or neuter."

"Those pieces are the core of the exhibit because it would affect viewers more, because they're very dramatic and they're three-dimensional, made to the scale of the viewer," Aschheim said.

Near the series, a self-portrait of Stein as a child shows her with a bowl of pills instead of cereal.

Stein's passage from an infant in a christening-type dress to a child in a hospital gown is represented by satin-gowned dolls. One baby doll's eyes are hollow and replaced with sutured photographs of Stein's eyes.

One of the more disturbing, "pretty satin" pieces is "Table Doctor," in which Stein expresses the idea of doctors having control of a patient's life. In the work, a patient with a disorder or disability is being sterilized by the doctor, who also reaches for the brain on an operating table.

"Corey has this outsider's perspective that I really like," said Marcus Bastida, who produced the video of the artist for the exhibition and serves on the Grand Central Art Forum board. "Some of it was a bit frightening and bizarre. But that's what intrigued me to want to know more about this artist."

Stein received her master's of fine arts degree in 1987 from the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita, where she studied under conceptual artist John Baldessari, her greatest influence there.

An advocate for the disabled, Stein had a show in Orange County five years ago at the Laguna Art Museum's South Coast Plaza annex. The exhibition, "Corey Stein: The I-5 Artist," was an installation project addressing disabilities.

Years after her curative brain surgery in 1991, Stein is free of epileptic seizures.

For once, Stein said, she has a chance to see clearly:

"I'm able to be more aware of myself, my emotions than I ever have before, and that shows in my work now."


"The Adventures of Phenobarbiedoll and More: Recent Work by Corey Stein," Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Ends Oct. 29. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. (714) 567-7233.


Vivian LeTran can be reached at (714) 966-5835 or by e-mail at

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