Warning: "Toys 'Art' Us" invades CityArts

A lineup of local and national underground artists reimagines childhood playthings in this exhibition in the art center's second-floor Boardroom Gallery. The cheeky takes on toys will be on view through July 21.

Warning: "Toys 'Art' Us" invades CityArts
Dr. Cos McEvil III, “Action Figures in Shells,” collection of 30, mixed media. Photo by Connie Kachel White for the SHOUT

Despite its seemingly youngster-friendly title, the exhibition "Toys 'Art' Us" carries a PG-13 advisory warning for its content. Covering everything from action figures gone berserk to an alarmingly creepy gumball machine, the creations in "Toys 'Art' Us" are on display now through July 21 in the second-floor Boardroom Gallery at CityArts.

A sign posted outside the Boardroom Gallery door warns visitors that the content of "Toys 'Art' Us" may not be suitable for young children. Photo by Connie Kachel White for the SHOUT

From outside the doorway leading into the gallery space, this warning-labeled toy art show looks colorful and serene. Step inside, though, and you’ll be confronted by, to your left, a “Haunted Barn Swallow,” spray paint and acrylic on Ouija board, by Brady Scott, who is perhaps better known as a tattoo artist and for his larger-than-life murals. To your immediate right is Michael Davenport’s mixed media work “Blast Off,” while further down is shelving holding a mad assortment of “Monster Cereals” — five toy figures in resin crafted by Artist Unknown, who is based in New York City. You’ve heard of Count Chocula, of course, but what about Fruity Yummy Mummy or Boo Berry? Nearby are Artist Unknown’s “Masters of the Universe,” made up of vintage Mexican blow mold bootlegs. By the way, it surely isn’t a coincidence that Artist Unknown is also the title of a SpongeBob SquarePants episode featuring SpongeBob going to an art class taught by Squidward. Oh, the weirdly compelling, Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit holes you can go down when viewing this show!

Next, showcased on a white pedestal, are two oversized, 18-inch action figures in resin and plastic of Danny Torrance from the 1980 psychological horror film The Shining. One Danny is in yellow, the other in blue. Both were designed by Shane Kao, a noted toy designer and film junkie, and produced and painted by Patrick Clement, aka Dr. Cos McEvil III. A film director and screenwriter by trade, as well as an antique dealer since 2009, he grew up in Boston, lived and worked in LA and NYC, and has called Wichita home for several years now. Part of the bootleg and underground toy scene since about 2010, Clement is the one who worked with Caitlin Waugh, gallery manager at City Arts, to pull together the exhibition, the first of its kind in Wichita.

Designed by Shane Kao and produced and painted by Dr. Cos McEvil III, “Danny Torrance” oversized 18-inch figures, resin and plastic. Photo by Connie Kachel White for the SHOUT

“This toy show,” he says, “was a little passion project for me. I curated pieces I thought could be good reps into the art form. Wichita has never had a toy art show from what I understand, and so I went in and spoke with Caitlin and she was super supportive of the idea. We tried to work in familiar images and characters that most visitors might recognize but see in a different way, like the Masters of the Universe Mexican bootlegs, cereal characters, The Shining, etc. It’s a challenging show from a logistical and practical standpoint — I give Caitlin credit for doing such a terrific job putting it up.”

Dr. McEvil’s toy art also dominates the gallery’s opposite wall, where a 30-piece collection of his mixed-media action figures packaged in plastic shells lurk, leering down at viewers. From Dune and Clockwork Orange movie characters to vampires and leprechauns to a slut (yupper, you read that right), McEvil’s tongue-in-cheek figures tweak the mind with their outlandish revamping of familiar and cherished models and toy icons. Another of McEvil’s toy-art series is a riff on Smurf characters, what he calls “Snuffs” — small figures made out of rubber and resin, each captivatingly grotesque or gross. One Snuff, for instance, vomits voluminously.

Clement gets his hands dirty making his Snuffs and other toy art pieces, something he enjoys. “I spend a lot of time thinking and writing,” he says, “and as a screenwriter I don’t use my hands very often and so I started making toys to keep my hands busy, to be honest. I find my toys are similar to my taste in stories and films, smaller characters from niche films and obscure TV shows. I also do a lot of micro-creators from the Internet that I’m a fan of.” He goes on to explain that the world of toys as art has been a significant but niche art community for some two decades now. “Toys as a proxy for childhood memories is as old as time, but contemporary toy art is rooted in the mass commercialization of toys-as-commerce that exploded in the 1980s especially. Everyone had toys as a child and probably a significant toy that evokes strong memories. A particular generation, growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, was bombarded with the wildest toy market and artwork and characters. They made action figures from "Police Academy" and "Beetlejuice," for Pete’s sake!”

The artists represented in Toys have easily topped the outlandishness of any such commercial action figures from the past. The proof is in the diversity of unsettling creations that crowd the gallery space. On one display shelf, for example, is a “Bloody Alfred” ceramic by Artist Unknown, a sofubi (soft vinyl toy) “Black Keep Watch Ape” by Mishka x Ummikko, and “Time Collision” in hot glue by Aaron Nemec. Perhaps the oddest is Obvious Plant’s “Leg,” a mixed-media, plastic-packaged miniature man’s leg —and it “Includes foot!” Compared to that, artist El Gato Gomez depicts “Pee-Wee’s Spook House” in acrylic on canvas almost realistically, and Ring Ding Corp’s “Killer Clown Gumball Machine c. 1982” looks nearly mainstream. One of the larger pieces in the show is the acrylic on canvas “MJ & ET” by John Rogers, who’s based out of Pittsburgh and goes by “ghoulorama” on social media. Ghoulish does indeed describe his painting of Michael Jackson and the title character from "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," as if the blockbuster movie was a splatter/slasher flick.

Other artists contributing to the Insane Clown Posse-vibe of "Toys" are Dave Abrams: Awesome Figures, Death by Toys; ATOYRI 24 with E.T., Superman, and Ghostbusters figures; Matthew Headley: Red Sea Tattoo, “No Bond,” ink on paper; Edwin Salas with his “Cheddar Goblin & Friends” in wood; Killer Bootlegs; Shampooty with “Little Tikes Trench Knife” in aluminum; Sucklord x Suckadelic; Retro Gimmick; and Kate Parnell: Garfield from Memory. Parnell is the artist behind Instagram’s long-term conceptual painting project, “Painting Garfield every day since 4/24/19.” Although the gallery’s artwork ID card doesn’t include what day she painted it, her acrylic on paper is titled “HerediGARFary,” an orange-dominated portrait of a cat-costumed girl in a HAVE A NICE DAY Garfield T-shirt.

Per the warning posted at the entrance, Toys ‘Art‘ Us isn’t for everyone. Toy-art winks to sex and violence are everywhere. But so are clever, comical explorations and imaginings of what inhabits that strange territory where art and toys collide. So, viewers beware. Enter this fun arthouse of mirrors at your own risk. ;)

The Details

"Toys 'Art' Us"
June 7-July 27 at CityArts, 334 N. Mead St. in Old Town Square
The exhibition is open to the public during CityArts' regular hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Learn more.

Connie Kachel White is a writer and editor who has written about the arts in Wichita for going on three decades now. White, whose communications gigs range from book-editing to investigative reporting, is the founding and current editor of Wichita State University’s The Shocker magazine. More of her writing can be found online at theshockermagazine.com and shockerconnect.com.

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