The Art of Toys: A Left Coast Retrospective of Designer Toys @ the Museum of Art and History, Lancaster, California

Jul 18, 2015 - Sep 06, 2015Museum of Art and History, Lancaster

Christmas comes in July, and there’s no age limit, especially for toy and comics aficionados. Riding on the happy heels of Comic-Con in San Diego, enthusiasts can slide right into The Art of Toys: A Left Coast Retrospective of Designer Toys at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California, which opens this weekend, July 18. Julie B. from Pretty in Plastic and Heidi Johnson of Hijinx have curated a dazzling display. To help out with your early holiday hoarding, we asked a few questions.

Gwynned Vitello: I always think of designer toys as being a guy’s preoccupation, but here I am talking to two women about them. Is there a profile of a typical collector?
Heidi Johnson: Over the last twenty years, I believe the toy collector has evolved as much as the toy has evolved. We are focused on the art toy, which has become an accessible platform for creators of Pop Surrealism/Lowbrow art and their fans. Many of these toys and sculptures are serious works of art. In my opinion, the industry has attracted the art lover, making it less about collectability and resale, but more about the love of the work.

Julie B: I don't think there is a typical collector, which is very refreshing. The designer toy world is full of girls, just go to any comic convention.

How and when did vinyls evolve from toy soldiers and dolls to being so obsessively collected?
Heidi: In 1999, limited editions began to be standard practice for art toys. On the West Coast, Frank Kozik was a significant game changer, and Gary Baseman has always been a stand out. Then in 2004, KidRobot and Tristan Eaton created a collector’s frenzy with the Dunny, and eventually, the Munny.

Julie: When chatting with my good friend Carl (aka “MutonIsMyFriend”), a few things sprang to mind, like how Michael Lau, Eric So and the HK toy scene of the late ’90s were game changers, fueling the early art toy adopters, the folks who originally supported brick-and-mortar stores like Toy Tokyo and Super7, as well as the online presence of pre-Dunny Kidrobot and endless eBay searches for Eastern vinyl. The LA art scene that spawned Baseman, Tim Biskup and Joe Ledbetter generated hardcore toy fans who picked up everything they could that was made by these guys and the toy companies who worked with them like Critterbox, TOY2R and Strange Co. Over the years, more amazing artists joined forces with the likes of Munky King, Toy Art Gallery, 3D Retro, DKE Toys and many more.

Are there certain characteristics that define the toys, that set them apart from other objects on a shelf?
Julie: What makes some pieces art toys, while others are just toys, all has to do with the artist, and that is who we want to highlight. This is not to diminish the fact that most licensed toys have artists behind them, but the driving force is the brand they are representing, not the artist. Design-driven art and designer toys are created by artists and tell a story or capture a character. These are art sculptures using the accessible toy concept as a template, whether PVC, resin, wood or metal. They are typically limited to small editions, which make them highly desirable and create a collectible value. They are small works of art on their own and warrant elevation to that status.

Of the artists showing, are there any whose foray into toys surprises you, a painter you never thought would be interested in doing this?
Heidi: The early Mark Ryden pieces are amazing to me. Greg "Craola" Simkins comes to mind as an artist whose paintings are so complex, and I was stoked to see him working on an art toy. We are seeing more and more street artists wanting to develop art toys as a nice takeaway for fans who can’t really buy work off the street.

What’s your personal treasury and where do you keep it?
Heidi: I have a Kozyndan Rabbit Wave that Julie sculpted for Munky King and gifted me with when we first met. It’s a favorite of mine.

Julie: There are so many pieces I love from all the amazing artists we have worked with, it would be hard to choose a favorite. Right now the highlighted piece on the middle of my mantle is a resin Vertigo iZombie Statue of Gwen Dylan based on the designs of Michael Allred and sculpted by the infamous Phil Ramirez.

A Left Coast Retrospective of Designer Toys, featuring murals, installations, panel discussions and workshops will be at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California from July 18 through September 6, 2015.