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Have you ever had the feeling you want to squeeze and squish something that is just too cute?

The world of the sweet and cuddly is often not taken seriously, yet cuteness is a huge part of contemporary life: in advertising, Instagram filters, emojis and memes, fashion and daily doses of fluffy animals on the internet. On social media people with superimposed bunny ears abound and it's hard to escape the internet's all-consuming fascination with round animals. But this poses the question: why would you want to escape the 'round boys'? Is there something wrong with spending vast amounts of time dribbling over images of fluffy, big-eyed creatures? Do we consider ourselves overgrown infants, refusing to face the harsh realities of life, and if so, did the generations before have the same disdain for 'cute'?

Rachel Maclean – Scottish artist and filmmaker – has curated works from the Arts Council Collection and Birmingham Museum Trust's collections around the theme of cuteness.

The 'Too Cute!' exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is accompanied by a new video made by the artist, which introduces visitors to the themes explored in the show. Maclean appears in the abominably fluffy guise of Dr Cute, and delivers academic lectures on 'the effects of cuteness', interrupted by garish and aggressively sweet motifs. Dr Cute's video surmises the conflicted feeling of wanting to squish and squeeze something to a sickening degree.

Juxtaposing contemporary objects and art with those from the nineteenth century allows the visitor to wonder: has the idea of cuteness evolved over time, and have people always had a compulsion to share images of all things 'lovely'?

Maclean has brought together objects and images that go beyond the fluff, into deeper territory – what happens when something is so cute that it becomes creepy? Can objects and images exist on a tightrope between the sweet and the sinister? Can we pinpoint that moment when something cute develops into something scary and repelling?

'Too cute!' is a lot of fun. By Dr Cute's own admission, cute things are a distraction, used to help us cope with the harsher realities of the world, but the exhibition inadvertently poses a lot of questions. The vast amount of stuff crammed into the space means multitudes of connections and contrasts can be made. Here we've included some paintings that make an appearance – when presented side by side, what do these works say about our obsession with cute?

Guinea Pig

Guinea Pig 1995

Dan Hays (b.1966)

Dan Hays began his series of guinea pig paintings while struggling to find work during the recession of the 1990s. Hays came across a pet-care book with an image of a guinea pig on the cover, which he felt mirrored his feelings of helplessness. Many of the animals are presented as though trying to escape the frame of vision. When displayed in corners and in between other works in group exhibitions they suggest a 'rodent infestation'.

Jack Smith has painted a child's awkward first steps, with tilted lines giving an impression of unbalance. The 'Kitchen Sink' group of painters to which he belonged defied convention and deliberately chose to represent working-class imagery.

The wealthy Holte family owned Aston Hall. In this portrait, the children are posed as hunters, with one holding a dead bird. The sitters would grow up to be gentlemen and landowners.

The artist has an interest in seventeenth-century Spanish still life paintings. Greenwood creates bizarre shapes that have an amorphous blob-like quality, painted contrastingly with fine detail. Reality feels slippery when looking at his made-up scenes.

Felicity

Felicity 1996

Liz Arnold (1964–2001)

Liz Arnold has shown a confidently strolling dog-like character, presumably the Felicity of the title. Does Felicity represent a state of mind, a dream or something more tangible?

The Blunt Children

The Blunt Children 1766–1770

Johann Zoffany (1733–1810)

The two brothers are aged around four years old – in the eighteenth century, boys would wear the same clothing as girls until they were aged around seven years. Johann Zoffany painted a great number of portraits of children, mostly showing them in the outdoors.

Untitled No. 130

Untitled No. 130 1995

Andrew Mansfield (b.1953)

Andrew Mansfield uses a technique for his animal paintings which uses glazes of colour over black and white. The repeated layers erase the ones below, and create a smooth finish, resembling photographs.

Official Rat Catcher to the City of Birmingham

Official Rat Catcher to the City of Birmingham 1927

Arthur Charles Shorthouse (1870–1953)

This engaging portrait is by Arthur Charles Shorthouse, who was a meat seller as well as a painter. 

On My Way to Paradise

On My Way to Paradise 1997

Alain Miller (b.1963)

Alain Miller has painted what could – according to a more 'textbook' description of cuteness – be a cuddly, friendly character. Its huge eyes and long lashes sit within the pink fleshy hues of the face/heart. Yet the painting is eerie, a representation of our inside feelings but twisted into a muscle and blood, a visceral nightmare.

In Illo Tempore I

In Illo Tempore I 1994

Ana Maria Pacheco (b.1943)

Illo Tempore I is inspired by Ana Maria Pacheco's childhood memories of religious street processions in Brazil.

Childhood

Childhood

Hermann Sondermann (1832–1901)

Hermann Sondermann worked in Germany in the nineteenth century, and specialised in pictures of everyday life – usually cottages with children. Here a child sternly pretends to drive a carriage. 

This portrait of Birmingham-born Fanny Beale may have been painted posthumously, commissioned by her father. She died at the age of five, only three years after the deaths of her mother and younger brother.

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood 1890

George Frederic Watts (1817–1904)

The gruesome tale of Little Red Riding Hood has been told to young children for centuries to press home the message that it's not always safe to talk to strangers, especially in the dark woods... In Watts' painting, the girl has an anxious expression – has she been approached by the wolf in his true form?

Jade King, Head of Editorial at Art UK

The exhibition 'Too Cute!' is at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 12th May 2019.

If you want to know more about Rachel Maclean and her work, Art UK partner HENI Talks have produced the following film.