Lowbrow, but often lovely
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 15, 2012
Among the many examples of mixed media listed on the labels for the streetwise art in “Urban Decay 3” -- markers, cast resin, wood, sculpting putty, leather, clay, found objects and photography, along with old-fashioned paint of the oil, acrylic and aerosol varieties -- you may notice one somewhat less-familiar material: Munny.
Don’t go running to the dictionary. You won’t find the word, which refers to a brand of plastic art-toy. Resembling a featureless, vinyl teddy bear that’s meant to be decorated, dressed up or otherwise enhanced by an artist, the Munny doll is the white canvas of the 21st century, a three-dimensional blank slate on which imagination comes to life.
There are several Munny dolls on view at the Workhouse Arts Center. Along with other examples of customizable toys and small figurative sculptures, these tabletop delights are the best thing about the energetic and accessible group show, which celebrates lowbrow art, a lively genre that draws its inspiration from the world of comics, graffiti, music, skateboarding, tattoo and custom-car culture.
The show’s hands-down master of what’s known in art circles as the “urban vinyl” genre is the artist known as Rsin. Made from an 18-inch Munny doll and incorporating elaborately ornamental clay and leather details, Rsin’s “King Whisper” is a showstopper. At $3,400, it’s also at the high end of the show’s prices (though it did take the artist 130 hours to make). Most works are priced for less than $500, and several of the customized action figures can be had for $100 or less.
Yes, this toy stuff is fun -- and occasionally very funny -- but it’s also serious, grown-up art. There’s a vibrant collector base for the figures. And as a couple of NC-17 rated paintings in the show indicate, “Urban Decay 3” isn’t intended for children. Less an expression of Peter Pan-like regression or infantilism, the urban vinyl movement is more about the “recognition of possibility,” in the words of curator Debra Yarrington.
Other notable toy artists in the show include Travis Lampe, JC Rivera, Kathie Olivas and Sylvia Ortiz. It’s nice to see a few female artists in what is, essentially, a boy’s club.
Among the show’s more interesting 2-D artists is Asad “Ultra” Walker, a graffiti painter whose work demonstrates the versatility and sophistication of the aerosol medium in a pair of almost cubist portraits. Drew Storm Graham’s bas-relief wall sculptures, which resemble a cross between oversize tattoos and giant pop-up books, also are a treat.
For the most part, the paintings exhibit an anti-establishment nose thumbing. Tyler Coey’s “Drones Work Hard Before They Die” -- a title whose sentiment is expressed in large letters written next to a skull -- needs no deep interpretation. James Walker contributes two striking pieces: a mixed-media assemblage called “Unfold the Map and Roll Down the Windows” and “Fetch,” a large photo of a tennis ball and a dog’s snout in mid-catch. Both are effective, and even moving, advertisements for the “carpe diem” philosophy.
The emphasis of the “Urban Decay 3” artists -- on the thrill of sex, the inevitability of death and the importance of retaining a childlike sense of wonder -- is brash, unequivocal and, at times, rather beautiful.
The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, June 15, 2012
The birth of the urban vinyl movement can be traced to the late 1990s, when two young Chinese artists and collectors of action figures, Michael Lau and Eric So, exhibited their customized dolls at the Hong Kong Toycon, a gathering of toy aficionados. Fashioned out of body parts from commercially available figures and then recombined with original accessories -- and often brand-new heads -- Lau and So’s figures were almost instant hits with the toy-collecting underground.
Today the urban vinyl movement includes manufactured series of limited-edition, artist-designed collectible toys, as well as the one-of-a-kind, customized figures typified by the Munny dolls in “Urban Decay 3.”
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, June 1, 2012
The urban vinyl movement has nothing to do with old records. It’s an art genre in which artists customize small, toylike plastic figures that have been specifically manufactured for the purpose of decoration.
On Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m., the Workhouse Arts Center will host an opening reception for “Urban Decay 3,” a group exhibition that will highlight -- along with examples of urban vinyl -- the broader category of lowbrow art, an underground style influenced by comics, graffiti and tattoo art that is slowly but surely finding its way into the mainstream.