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Avenue Arts Venue is hardly Santa’s Toy Shop, but it does have colorful toys on display in its window. Avenue Arts is a funky storefront just a block away from Fair Park, and it’s where Edward Ruiz makes and sells what are called “art toys” or “designer toys.” The storefront is the 36-year-old’s art gallery, studio – and home.
WEEKS: [footsteps] “This is the studio space?
RUIZ: “This is the studio space, and there’s a lot of little projects going on in various corners of the room. If you go past the dinosaur and take a quick right, you’ll start getting into my apartment.”
The dinosaur looming in the corner is a nine-foot-tall Allosaurus. It’s from the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park. Ruiz worked there helping to replace outdated science displays, and he learned how to cast figures in resin. That’s what his 5-to-7-inch-tall toys are made of. Laid out on his work table in his studio space are the green, rubbery, silicon molds that are used to hand-cast the figurines.
Avenue Arts’ current exhibition is called “Toy Show” and it features toy designs from half-a-dozen artists – including several from North Texas, such as Jason Ice and Scott Higgins (a.k.a Monster Bot). They’re all part of an elaborate toy sub-culture that spans the globe, yet you won’t find their toys at Target or Gamestop. Designer toys are hand-painted, custom-made, limited-editions. They’re oddball monsters, cartoony creatures or humanoids shaped like big-headed babies. Some are political or celebrity caricatures. And they can sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
The market for designer toys began in Hong Kong in the ’80s and ’90s when artists started radically reconfiguring GI Joes and Star Wars figurines — and they found that art galleries were interested in them. But it was in Japan where the toys really took off. They became part of what the Japanese call “otaku” or “geek culture.” (Otaku refers derisively to a “homebody” — implying the typical teenager still living with his parents.) Otaku is the term for the entire, obsessive, collectible mix of comic books, animated movies and video games that has infiltrated American popular entertainment the past decade.
Ruiz explains the adult appeal of designer toys as a more sophisticated version of playtime.
RUIZ: “When you’re a child and you’re restricted to your home and all that kind of stuff, when you take a toy, you can be or go anywhere. That playfulness still exists in these figures. You can put all that imagination and all that art into something like one of these toys.”
In fact, many designer toys expressly channel childhood fears, fantasies and favorites (like food or fur). Those toys that embody huggable innocence the Japanese call kawaii — meaning “cute” — which encompasses everything from the whimsical to the outright kitschy, especially when it comes to “plush” or stuffed-fabric toys. But many artists take the childlike and give it a strong shot of monster-movie grotesquerie or adolescent sarcasm. Think of the hot rod “car-toons” from the ’60s — by artists like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, creator of Rat Fink.
For his part, Ruiz’ most successful effort so far is a pair of figures, Cymon the monkey and Reggie the raccoon, who recall classic Warner Brothers characters like Bugs Bunny. They also have a sleepy-eyed sense of threat. Dressed in black and wearing a beret, Cymon can appear Gallic and bohemian, even as he hefts a monkey wrench, looking as if he just mugged someone with it.
Nowadays, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has designer toys in its collection. Art Basel, the international art fair in Miami, has devoted galleries to them.
Paul Budnitz (right) founded Kidrobot seven years ago to sell designer toys, apparel and accessories. Kidrobot now has five stores around the country, including the newest one which opened in July in Dallas at Mockingbird Station (below left).
BUDNITZ: “I honestly think it’s good design. It’s sort of like new pop art sculpture, really.”
Budnitz says the constant question of whether designer toys should be considered artworks or playthings has driven him a little crazy. His own toy designs, for instance, are some of the ones accepted into MOMA’s permanent design collection. Yet in conversation, even Budnitz shifts between ‘art’ and ‘toy.’
BUDNITZ: “The thing is that some of the stuff we sell really are just toys. I know for a fact that a lot of kids play with them because my daughter’s friends play with them.”
Historically, artworks have often served different functions. Consider the many portraits of saints, which were intended as both spiritual and aesthetic experiences. It’s only in the past 150 years or so that art has been admired because — as Oscar Wilde declared — it was “useless.” But if pop art has taught us anything since the ’50s, it’s the difficulty in distinguishing between art for sale and commercial products for sale — especially when the artwork and the commercial product look exactly the same.
Designer toys, then, can be both art and toy, although Budnitz notes that it’s the less expensive items that generally get put to work as toys — for obvious reasons. Edward Ruiz makes a related distinction: With figures like his own — hand-cast from resin — the material doesn’t stand up to much abuse. That automatically makes them more likely to be admired on a shelf than bounced around a playroom. In contrast, most toys sold by outlets like Kidrobot — or Hasbro or Mattel — are made of the more durable polyvinyl chloride (usually shortened to ‘vinyl’). Vinyl toys are tougher,and they’re easier to mass-produce via rotocasting. Most toys are rotocast in China.
Art and toy, art or toy: The fact is that designer toys are still not sold in most art galleries. And because designer toys are usually limited to small, exclusive runs, major chain stores don’t carry them, either. This means that, at least when it comes to marketing and distribution, designer toys are neither toy nor art. They remain an “in-between” sub-culture or specialty market. Which is where Kidrobot comes in – along with such websites as Toy2R, Delicious Drips and Tenacious Toys. They can target (and respond to) a smaller, faddish, fast-changing market.
But while designer toys may remain a specialty item, they’ve begun to influence Hollywood cartoons and TV shows. Kidrobot, for instance, was bought last year by Wildbrain, Inc., which produces Nickelodeon series like Yo Gabba Gabba!
And they’ve begun to influence young artist’s ideas of a career, of making a living. Just as the designer toy phenomenon began with American models that were utterly transformed by Japan and then sold back to America, so, too, has the role of the designer toy artist. Major Japanese artists such as Takashi Murakami have followed Andy Warhol as their pop-art role model, crossing boundaries between high culture and hard-nosed business. They’re international artists — and they’re commercial entrepreneurs, spinning off merchandise like books, clothing, wallpapers, handbags, prints, toys.
So is it selling out or self-empowerment? Vanessa Velasquez is a 25-year-old artist from The Colony. She’s created her own brand name, Nreazon. Nreazon has sold designer toys for $800 apiece — her specialty are hand-painted versions of “blanks” (white, unpainted models that encourage do-it-yourself customizing). Her cuddly-with-a-kick styles include a smiling hand grenade and skulls on ice cream cones. She’s sold them through Kidrobot, Delicious Drips and Avenue Arts. But Nreazon also makes and markets t-shirts, jewelry, graphic art, zipper pulls – out of her home and via her website. It’s how she earns a living.
NREAZON: “Oh, I stay busy [laughs].”
Nreazon’s idea of success isn’t a museum show or gallery exhibition. She’s had gallery exhibitions. What she’d like are new markets. She’d like her own shop, cranking out works with other artists. And she ‘d like to visit China to develop her own product lines.
NREAZON: “If you want to make a living as an artist, you have to learn to expand yourself – especially if, you know, you don’t want a 9 to 5. [chuckles]”
Nreazon doesn’t play around with her toys.