Thursday, July 10, 2008

Toy Stories

Radiohead’s Thom York says: "The reason 'Fitter Happier' exists is 'cos of mental background noise. Some days you're in a disturbed state and it moves to the front." Cincinnati artist Stephen Smith seems to present this movement from back to front (and back again?) in the 6 panels that make up his Fitter, Happier, More Productive currently on view at Red Tree Gallery in Oakley. Approaching these panels in the gallery from right to left start from more abstract blurs toward focused images. Is this blur the disturbed state to which York refers? Or perhaps it is the image of what look like Playmobil toys that represent this state. It is the presence of recognizable toys in Smith’s work that got me thinking about the role of toys in our culture as conduits of pop themes.

For over the last generation, we have seen a number of pop cultural characters appear in the toy aisles. Most notable are comic book super heroes like Superman and Disney characters like Mickey Mouse. Now it seems as though absolutely no children’s programming will hit the airwaves unless it is paired with a toy that has marketing potential. While the pop icon as toy is such a common presence in our culture, more recently I (and no doubt you) have noticed an interesting shift to toy as pop icon.
Trying to determine the birth of this trend, I go back only to Pixar’s Toy Story. (Perhaps this can be traced back much further?) This film was cast with a number of our favorite toys such as Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, little army men, and barrel of monkeys. While I don’t want to take away from the wonderful story, the film’s success at least partly relies on our own sense of nostalgia and love of our childhood toys. Toy Story effectively revealed the impact toys have on our childhoods and Toy Story 2 revealed the exploitation of that impact.

The movement of toys from the store to the screen has further conflated the pop icon as toy/toy as pop icon roles in our culture. Dare I say it? The toy has gone Post-Modern on us. Today video games based on the extremely popular films that make up Star Wars and Indiana Jones not only exploit the love of the films, but like Toy Story also tap into our nostalgic love of toys, specifically Lego. These video games allow us enter the well-known plots as Lego characters of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Indiana Jones.

Stephen Smith’s work is notable for its representation of toys as pop icons of our culture. And in many he seems to be following the current trend of employing the toy in his exploration of universal and sometimes grand themes in popular culture. His Where I End and You Begin is another Radiohead lyric reference that again finds the image of a toy. While Smith’s work can be whimsical or even appear comical, a closer look may reveal that these are not merely children’s playthings.