Buoyancy. Bounce. Balloon. Toy photographer Brian McCarty revives all the fun, imaginative “B” words related to toys and childhood in his exuberant photos. This came to mind as my friend (NYC artist Ricki Arno, grandma with an urban art fetish) and I recently took in a show of McCarty’s work.
What a pleasure to laugh giddily, laugh out loud, at art. And to know it’s okay. It’s okay because with truly great toy art photography, one laughs with the toys. Toy art photography lightly and blithely takes shooting’s potentially voyeuristic aspects to a new level.
I didn’t get it until I saw this show. And I’m still not certain how toy art photography came into being, but it’s very big. And McCarty,– step-son of local arts enthusiast and philanthropist Mickey Babcock— is one of the art form’s masters. He’s in love with art toys, creating images that “…blur the lines between art and commerce.” McCarty brings designer toys to life, placing them in fantasy situations and photographing them. Think back to the days of playing in the sand with those miniature olive green army men. We set them up in sand dunes, my siblings and I, making believe we commanded our tiny camouflaged troops, tossing dirt bombs, creating mini ambushes, tiny rescue missions. The little figures took on a life of their own, and today’s toy photography movement riffs on that era of play.
Today’s toys are made of plastic, vinyl, plush fabrics and other materials. They’re highly graphic and cartoon-like and have been in production since the 1990’s. McCarty’s work connects to many enterprises such as advertising, music, publishing, and toy manufacturing. Toy manufacturers often send McCarty prototypes; the toys allow him to push boundaries while creating on multiple levels. McCarty works with a variety of artists who have also chosen to view plastic and plush as a means of artistic expression.
What got him started on the tiny toy picture path?
“About the time I was supposed to grow up and stop playing with toys, they transitioned into subjects for my early, fumbling experiments with photography,” says McCarty. “It felt natural to communicate through these objects that carried so much emotional and cultural weight. Toys are not just fun, they are how every child begins to find his or her place in the world. Through play, reality is deconstructed and recreated in smaller, safer bites. With this in mind, toys for me became a purposeful mechanism for perspective and artistic exploration. They have remained at the core of my vision.”
Each photograph tells a tiny story that is really a commentary on humanity, pairing up seemingly unrelated objects and place. Even as we laugh at McCarty’s work, we wonder if we should be amused at certain messages. Should we laugh at the plush, smiling Kaiser-Nutcracker-faced hand grenade being tossed into the air by a guy dressed in army fatigues? We do laugh, but we get the intimation. I laughed at the vinyl tree frog’s near escape from becoming road kill, I laughed at the happy-go-lucky, candy-colored toys raining down on a sun-baked earth, engaging in a happy little invasion of their own.
McCarty is making fun of us, of our deepest foibles, our inconsistencies, our self-stereotyping. We’re ridiculously silly, like really good toys. We’re white rabbits on a lonely planet, we’re kinda ugly grunge musicians making music in the subways, we’re snaggy-toothed aliens landing–“kersplat!”–in chocolate cake.
How did we get here? And where will we go?
Mark Nowlin, The Master’s Studio proprietor, opens his first solo show of recent drawings, paintings and “constructions” at the Artspace Theater Lobby tonight, at the Center for the Arts.
I haven’t seen his work, and I can’t match Nowlin’s own description of his art, so I paraphrase his summary here:
“The heads of Barbie dolls are replaced by weather elk vertebra for a macabre but humorous juxtaposition of the socially complex and naturally simple. A work of 18th-century music is seen through a rack of glass test tubes…. The rack of a deer is attached to a beautiful antique sewing machine, a provocative mounted specimen. Old and new, nature and science, the mundane and the sublime converse within Nowlin’s glass cases…”
The opening reception runs 5:30-8:00 pm tonight, at the Center’s Artspace Gallery. For information, phone 307.733.6379