More than meets the eye at Studio 18 in Pembroke Pines

Little Captain America, Little Batman, Little Cat Girl and a stuffed teddy bear assemble at the counter of Phillies diner in "Together," Monique Lassooij's dark, vaguely sinister re-creation of Edward Hopper's painting "Nighthawks." The kids appear glum and lonely. The soda jerk, Little Batman, wears Mickey Mouse ears, a white T-shirt and a red blanket tied around his neck. He glowers at the viewer. The diner is "a safe haven of community," the North Miami artist says, from the urban decay across the street, where splintered wood from a derelict storefront covers the sidewalk.

Lassooij's works appear in the main gallery of Pembroke Pines' Studio 18, which will unveil the group show "Who's Fooling Who?" on Friday, Jan. 9. The children in improvised superhero costumes, she explains, are "in an abusive situation at home or maybe in school, like they're walking in a minefield and somebody misplaced the flags."

"Children are defenseless in such situations, so they imagine themselves as superheroes as some kind of defense mechanism," says Lassooij, who also re-created Da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine" and Goya's "Dona Isabel" for the show. "I always see them as the diners having coffee in the Hopper painting. They have a collective. It's a sanctuary."

Curator Jill Slaughter says the eight artists of "Who's Fooling Who?" are responding to themes of deception, and that the title was inspired by a New Yorker article that explored how victims and abusers behave in relationships with domestic violence. Proceeds from Friday night's reception will benefit the Plantation nonprofit No More Tears, which aids women and families suffering with domestic violence. No More Tears founder Somy Ali will display a photo booth filled with artworks created by children helped by the organization.

"I was reading that it's the abuser who often looks emotionally stable and composed, while the abused looks erratic and unstable. You know, who's fooling who, right?" Slaughter says. "For this show, I wanted people to look for the unseen or less truthful, to search for what is being hidden."

The show also includes works by Peter Symons, Stephanie Cunningham, Maria Mor and a collaboration from Valeria Rocchiccioli and Martin Casuso, who will adorn a canopy above the entrance to Studio 18 with a tapestry of yarn and bottle caps. Meanwhile, Miami Beach's Yuhmi Collective, the husband-and-wife team of Michelle and Victor Vasquez, mounts anime-inspired paintings of wide-eyed women against a swirling backdrop of graffiti writing. In "The Light Is Your Guide," a jaguar is perched atop the head of a yellow-haired girl as a reference to jaguar warriors of the Aztec civilization (Victor is Mexican).

"Putting cultural references in our paintings is like comfort food to us. They symbolize strength and positivity and courage," says Michelle Vasquez, 29. "Our worlds might look childish and cartoony, but when you look at the symbolism, you can peel back our cultural heritage like an onion."

A massive ball of yellow, black and purple embroidered cloth belonging to Jacksonville's Sharla Valeski will clog up the foyer of Studio 18. Valeski slipped stuffed animals into a transparent sleeve in the ball, but left the work untitled because she wanted it to seem inscrutable.

"You can see these pretty plushies in this window compartment, but that tells you nothing about what's inside the ball itself. Anything could be inside. You have to guess," Valeski says with a laugh. "I like to, in a nice way, mess with people's heads."

Who's Fooling Who?

When: Friday, Jan. 9, through Feb. 10 (opening reception: 7-10 p.m. Friday)

Where: Studio 18, 1101 Poinciana Drive, Pembroke Pines

Cost: Free

Contact: 954-961-6067 or PPines.com/Studio18

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