STANDING in front of the exhibition “From the Island of Misfit Toys” is a life-sized sculpture of a young woman donning a blue “Star Wars” storm trooper uniform, smoking a cigarette and carrying a revolving cannon. She’s “Red Riding Hood,” one of two sculptures by Nathan Cabrera that tells the viewer from the get-go, this exhibition may be about toys, but don’t call it kids’ stuff.
Nor should they be confused with the popular designer toys that are made by graphic designers, illustrators and graffiti artists. Instead, this group show at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design features 11 artists who transform standard toys -- plastic figurines, toy models or plushes -- to visually tell amusing narratives about the world around them, and thereby take toys to the level of fine art.
Otis curator Meg Linton developed the idea for the show when she first saw Jonathan Callan’s wall installation “Empires.” The British artist took his children’s discarded Happy Meal toys and injected them with black and white silicone caulking to create a wall installation of bulbous figurine sculptures. As Linton sought out other artists who manipulated toys, she found a range of approaches that included not only sculpture, but also photography, installation and performance pieces.
Of each work, she says, “I was impressed by the intention, talent and skill that the artist could bring to the show.”
The title of the show alludes to an island of unwanted toys from the 1964 stop-action feature “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” When artist Elizabeth Berdann (who goes by “blu”) first learned of the exhibition name, she was compelled to create a series especially for the show. It turned out that her 10-year-old daughter had her own collection of Misfit dolls.
“I scavenged the toys from my daughter’s toy box, but she got very upset at me and wouldn’t let me have them,” Berdann says.
Instead, Berdann found a set on EBay for her series “Townspeople Frozen in Terror at the Approach of a Family of Angry Abominable Snowmen.” Berdann removed the heads of the Misfits and replaced them with self-portraits made with oil on copper that show her in a variety of horrified expressions.
Berdann finds the portrait the most compelling aspect of working with toys.
“I’ve taken toys back to the realm of the realistic look, and it’s quite funny,” she says. “Because my scale is so small, you have to get up to it closely, and I often show things that people don’t particularly want to see.”
For Berdann and other artists, toys open a door to a growing international community of people who are moving into an industry that was once confined to mass production.
“I wanted to participate in this toy phenomenon because I found it this huge burst of creativity that crossed many lines of artistic fields,” Berdann says.
Then there are those who intend to work within the framework of toy commerce. Dan Goodsell’s “Imaginary World” is based on the context of a theme park with a cast of characters that includes Mr. Toast, Shaky Bacon, Joe the Egg and Drunken Carrot.
What began as a short film he made in college has become a series of comics, sculptures, paintings and plush dolls that he sells at events such as Comic-Con in San Diego and the Alternative Press Expo in the Bay Area. On the exhibition’s opening night, a giant, walking Mr. Toast greeted visitors.
“Everyone can enjoy ‘The Imaginary World’ because a character like Mr. Toast elicits a familiarity with people and has a funny take on things,” Goodsell says.
In another corner of the gallery, there’s a homage to the lowrider. Dutch artist Jeroen de Vries (a.k.a. Jevries) has pimped out the standard model car by attaching hydraulic systems to the radio-controlled vehicles so that they bounce up and down. The lowriders are displayed behind glass next to a video demonstration of a toy Impala hopping to music. De Vries’ works have been popular enough that the graphics and skateboard park designer started his own toy company.
Works throughout the gallery space often elicit laughter. That’s often the reaction to performance artist Deborah Brown’s “The Surrogate,” which consists of mounted Elmo heads and a bright red fur coat that hangs in the middle of the gallery. Sixty-three Tickle Me Elmo dolls were “skinned,” rewired and fashioned into a full-size tickle-me fur coat. In the accompanying video, Brown struts down a catwalk with the coat and goes home to be tickled into a giggling frenzy.
Although humor has a big presence among the works, there are some darker elements at play.
In Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz’s series “Travelers,” figures fend for themselves in snow globes, isolated in the middle of a blizzard. In one piece, a person hovers over a snow-covered body as ravens watch, perched on decaying trees.
“Something about working in this scale is very interesting,” Martin says. “There’s a sense of being godlike and looking down on something really small and realizing that there can be an invisible force looking down upon you, which gives the sense of being a small figure yourself.”
Although most of the works are small enough to be hand-held, Cabrera’s work shifts the scale of an action figure to life size. Cabrera created full-scaled figures based on “Star Wars” characters that, like the storm trooper by the gallery entrance, address violence, gender and social issues. Nevertheless, the full-sized Tusken Raider, guarding a supply of oil in the back of the gallery, looks distressingly lifelike.
Linton saw each artist cultivate new possibilities within the toy market.
“There’s a sense of discovery in the materials,” she says. “Since they were using toys, it wasn’t a huge pressure for some of the artists. They were able to play with them in a free way and create new objects with them from there.”
‘From the Island of Misfit Toys’
Where: Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., L.A.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays
Ends: April 15
Info: (310) 665-6905, www.otis.edu