Real Talk About Custom Toys
Before we get down to brass tacks, there are two things I need to put out there:
- I’m a big fan of Steve Talkowski‘s pencil-wielding Sketchbot character.
- I’m not a hater; just look at this last post about the Sanrio art show.
That said, I must admit that the best thing about last Friday’s Sketchbot custom show at LA’s Munky King was seeing so many friends there. In my critical opinion, this was not a stellar show.
Nothing useful can come of pointing fingers at individual pieces that seemed to fall short of being ‘art show caliber’. Instead, I’d like to highlight a handful of really strong customs and weave in a bit of commentary about the custom toy scene in general.
THE GOOD: Chris Ryniak‘s Elder Tree GNAWLAR was the first piece I saw upon walking into the Melrose Ave toy store slash art gallery. CMR is a master of infusing an innocent piece of vinyl with a plethora of emotions. His creatures split the difference between being warty and ugly yet endearing and cuddly. Looking at those big glass eyes, don’t you just want to comfort its sadness while knowing in the back of your head he’ll quickly grow up into a monster who will likely eat you?
THE BAD: What works for Chris does not work for everyone. People should make their own monsters, not emulate someone else’s style. Remember kids: Your monsters can bite, but you should not.
THE GOOD: Hiroshi Yoshii‘s Spotty Bot was colorful, clean and clear-coated. The key thing here is that it appeared FINISHED. His Bot was one of the few that could hold its own as a small sculptural work in a contemporary art museum.
THE BAD: This was supposed to be an art toy show. Let’s dissect that sentence. It assumes that participants are striving to make art and willingly putting that art on formal display. If everyone is on the same page about that, why do so many pieces at custom toy shows seem rushed, unfinished and devoid of basic artist skills? While the DIY ethos can be wonderfully inclusive, galleries and curators need to really consider whether work is being submitted as a hobby/lark or a finished piece.
THE GOOD: There’s a reason J*RYU has a star in his name. You’re looking at a complete concept here. It’s skillfully sculpted and rendered in mixed media with motion and music. This piece makes sense in Jesse’s oeuvre, but it also works as a standalone sculpture.
THE BAD: What I saw in this Sketchbot show was not a lot of art and not really much in the way of toys, but rather: a ton of CRAFT. If you can buy it at JoAnn Fabrics (fur, felt, glitter, etc.), you are walking a very risky line between ART and CRAFT.
THE GOOD: Rohby carved out the Sketchbot shell and made it into a mecha suit. Look at those custom-sculpted fingers! Not only does this figure have good technique, but it makes sense.
THE BAD: Most customized toys fall into three categories: 1) A work created in accordance with or in response to the original toy (see above by Rohby) or an assigned theme, 2) An occasion to impart a specific artist’s signature style onto another artist’s work or 3) The possibly dadaist idea of turning a robot into a donkey, a refrigerator or Russell Brand. In my opinion, there is not enough of #1, there is too much of #2, and #3 is really hit or miss.
The custom Sketchbots are currently up on Munky King’s website for sale here. While viewing the available pieces, I noticed a bunch of customs that weren’t out on display at the show’s opening. Therefore, honorable mentions go out to: Paul Kaiju, Jimmy Foo and Matt JOnes for what looks to be solid work.
In closing, to paraphrase Pantene, don’t hate me because I’m honest. I care deeply about this medium of art. The writer in me is compelled to ask questions, and not all of them are bubblegum feelgood softballs. I’ll exit with the words of a notable toy customizer who I recently grilled: “Perhaps you actually have the balls to ask that shit.”
What do you think? Please leave some comments!
Inside Tim Biskup’s Fantastic House
1 Comment | Oct 5, 2011
Update on Project White & Red Resins by Patient No. 6
No Comments | Apr 25, 2012
Real Life Russian Barbie Doll is Really From Outer Space
No Comments | May 1, 2013
Create and Collaborate with Scott Tolleson and MAQET!
No Comments | May 31, 2012
I’ve got to agree with Steve on this: “Healthy discussion is all well and good but the only way you’re going to effect any positive change on this is to simply do it better.”
I think constructive criticism is a great tool, it makes artists strive to do better. However this post comes across as rather heavy handed and moan-y for the sake of it.
Having customising superstars like Chris Ryniak, Rohby, Hiroshi Yoshii and J*Ryu in a show only makes other customs look less-polished because they are next to such prime examples of the craft. But rather than seeing this as a negative i see it as a positive, it shows what can be done if we push ourselves.
No body can be perfect from the get-go
So many great comments that it’s hard to even take the plunge and pitch in.
I have only ever done one custom show – Droplet series 2 which Gav kindly invited me to take part in. I had no idea what to make of it, and knew there were some big names already on the list. But I gave it a go and had fun with it, despite the daunting thought of “how good everyone else’s would be”.
The thing I really enjoyed about that show in particular was that there were lots of people (including well known artists but also friends/family wanting to have a go) invited to customise a droplet, and a real mixed bag of customs came out at the end. Some were insanely good, others were a bit more level headed. The point I’m failing to make is that if you only invite big names to customise for shows, how will there ever be any variety? If only 10-15 artists put their time and effort into making the toy their own, won’t we just get bored of seeing the same old stuff on a different base toy? I think that a big custom show is a great idea, as long as you don’t take the end results too seriously. The whole toy community is about having fun with something. Creating and collecting things which other ‘adults’ would never be into or even understand. This is a creatively diverse community and what some people lap up others discard!
Jeremy writes that he doesn’t like to see the same big names, but also that there are seemingly unfinished and rushed customs by the less well known artists. Surely you need the ‘fresh blood’ to keep things interesting. New people trying things out and having a go is what keeps the community fresh. I’d rather see an unpolished custom from someone new to the custom game than a million sparkling pieces by [the same old big name].
In my opinion, embrace everyone who wants to have a go, there might just be a brand new favourite artist in there for you if you’re willing to let go! It gives those new people a chance to get their names out there, and showcase that talent that perhaps the community hasn’t seen before.
I’m no professional writer, I’m tired, and this is probably rambling, but hey…at least I had a go, right?
I agree with a lot of what Jeremy says but I think the sketchbot show is actually the *wrong* show to have this discussion about because I think sketchbot is actually great for customizing and I think it inspired a lot of good work. The only reason perhaps this show can spark this discussion is the sheer volume of work involved. There isn’t a need for such a great number of customs in a show and perhaps Steve could have been more selective.
Besides the ones you mentioned I thought there were strong entries from Scott tolleson, Cameron Tiede, betso, lunabee, Paul Shih and others.
I don’t think that all toys should be customized – the upcoming burgerbuns show springs to my mind as one I really don’t see why it should be – but I think its a case by case scenario. Recently I was very pleasantly surprised by the misfortune cat show, a toy I didn’t think would lend itself to customs, but I loved the results.
Sometimes its great to see a great artist tackle a strong figure *because* its a difficult task that takes creativity.
There’s certainly place for criticism but I think mainly, custom shows promote creativity and give a platform to new and rising artist, and, ideally, a playground for veteran artists to experiment with different shapes.
As someone who sometimes travels around to these shows and covers them (and as a budding artist who just shipped off his first custom for The Omi Show at Munky King next month), I can tell you that I understand how exhausting it can be. It seems like there’s always a new show to go to and cover, and that the pace has really, really picked up in the last few months. And I can’t help but feel that’s part of the reason why some customs might be turning out to be not so great or repetitive. The artists you highlighted, Jeremy, are not artists I see in every show, and of them, I think J*RYU’s the one I see most frequently.
I definitely think part of the problem, frankly, is there are too many big custom shows. Not that they shouldn’t exist or that there should be fewer places having them maybe, but I’ve noticed especially since October that there’s been a lot of shows out there all over the country and world, and that means either picking a few and focusing on those and those alone or just hoping to get as many customs as you can get done. I feel as though touring shows might help relieve some of the pressure for both artists and galleries alike, but those are incredibly expensive to organize and can be a disaster if something doesn’t get shipped out right.
So unfortunately, there’s no real easy answer to that.
On craft vs. art, though, I’m glad you clarified your point. It really doesn’t matter what is made as long as it’s good quality, because I’ve seen some customs made with nothing more than paint and clear coat that are fantastic alongside other ones that are not up to par at all. I’m a little more lenient on judging them if it’s a first or second-time artist, though, because they may just be getting their feet wet or not have a whole lot to work with because of where they live. If all you got is popsicle sticks but you can turn out a killer Trojan Sketchbot custom piece, for example, then that’s awesome.
And I agree with Hollie: “Having customising superstars like Chris Ryniak, Rohby, Hiroshi Yoshii and J*Ryu in a show only makes other customs look less-polished because they are next to such prime examples of the craft. But rather than seeing this as a negative i see it as a positive, it shows what can be done if we push ourselves.” I don’t think I would have invested the time in my Omi had I not realized it was going to be up there with Chris and Jesse’s in a few weeks, along with many other artists I respect greatly. And I’m already thinking of how I can do an even better job the next time I get the chance to do a custom anything, even if it’s just for myself.
I think Jeremy’s most important criticism is the discussion of being “finished”. I’ve always thought that, although opinions of style, content and materials can vary, most people can step back, look at something and say, Is that a finished piece or isn’t it. I don’t mean should more things be done to the custom, but as Jeremy said, is it polished? It could be argued that this is subjective, but I have always seen it as an objective thing.
And I agree that there are -some- pieces that don’t seem finished. More than the first show, from what I’ve seen on the respective websites. But I still think the majority of these customs are finished, solid pieces of art (despite what subjective style issues people might have).
And style can make the pieces unique, while still having a show where all the pieces are polished.
The issue raised here runs a little deeper than just the final quality of some of the customs at a generally solid show.
A stellar show still has pieces that don’t shine like all the others, how far down the quality ladder things slide however is more a reflection on the depth of quality within the field.
It’s my opinion that some of the work on show is more school craft work than a work of art…that said, the same people manage to sell a series of customs so i guess it works for some people.
The main issue with the ever present substandard work is that It’s symptomatic of the ‘scene’ and those in and around it.
It’s the inevitable outcome of the general back slapping and retweeting of substandard work and customs by people that are using hollow compliments and social media to try and get a leg up.
Complimenting one person so that person compliments them back and so on and so on. Some of the recent Qee releases have artwork on them that has more to do with people keeping a friendly social media persona going rather than having the ability to design or paint. The more that continues, the lower the general standard gets…
No one likes an asshole of an artist, but it truly is remarkable just how far some people are getting by just being nice. Sucking up to bloggers…getting some coverage…and having no real quality of work to back it up. Retweet, retweet, retweet – The same people get invited to shows…and the results are inevitable, more of the same. Bloggers want news, news on slow days means the posting of shit customs by poor designers…and the close relationship that the ever present social media creates between artists and bloggers clearly makes it hard for people to say “No, that’s not good enough”
The bad artists and cliche designers ultimately won’t care, because they’ve surrounded themselves with like-minded and like-talented people who pat them on the head and say it’s great…they return the compliment and the cycle begins again.
The whole vinyl scene has become watered down over the years, the greats are still great at what they do, the few good newcomers stand out, and the other 75% is just people that are desperate to be involved…and although you can’t knock the enthusiasm…blindly encouraging it means you get the monsters you help create.
No one questions anything because then you are frowned upon and maybe a chance is gone, or an opportunity goes begging…this is what it has become.
The top drawer people keep a closed tight knit ‘fam’ and everyone else is trying to get in. It’s all about who you know and kissing the right ass.
And while i’m here…an AP is just that – it’s an Artist Proof of a final product, something produced in a limited number for the artist to quality check. It is not the 20 or so toys that the company has produced as part of the general run and given the artist as payment for the design. That is just a production toy, not an Artist Proof…it’s a sad indictment of the scene that AP’s are being sold that are just general release toys and that work that should be a school project ends up in quality custom shows.
There’s a lot of people who live in the art world with their noses up in the air most of the time. That’s why I got involved in customizing toys in the first place. Those who are becoming jaded by what they see in custom shows, remind me of people who complain about a movie, cuz they have seen that story, or effect 100 times before. Someone else will see that movie differently, because their background is different.
After successfully showing and selling my piece at a munny show, I thought I’d try my hand at an actual art show. I was told that the judges would not allow my customs. They used the example of painting a model car and calling it art. They had their noses up in the air, and now we do too.
This genre of art, albeit over 10 years old, is still in it’s infancy. Vinyl is my canvas, along with other strange things. I don’t give a damn if I buy my raw materials at Michaels or at a garage sale. Love what you do. No matter what. Show the world and if it sells, great.
Try and remember why you started promoting,collecting and customized toys in the first place, and hold that notion close to your heart when you go to your next show.
As a relative newcomer to this scene from a participatory standpoint and having been a collector/fan for quite awhile, I agree with many of the points being raised by all of you. However, contrary to Jeremy and some others’ perspectives about the main gist of his article, I quite enjoyed the show that Steve and Munky King put together. There were so many pieces that really stood out for me and those included pieces that didn’t adhere to some of the main points that Jeremy used as qualifiers as being “Good”. To be fair though, I am also the type that can find something great about every piece of art, whether or not it jibes with my personal artistic sensibilities or not. Whether it is technique, concept, execution or that it just tickles me funny, the one thing that I can always appreciate is effort, even if it isn’t up to my personal level of what I would put into a piece. Before I started doing customs myself, I really didn’t have a good grasp as to what it really took to get something from concept to completion. Now that I spend most of my waking free-time working on them, it has given me a totally new appreciation for even the seemingly smallest of tasks, as I now know what it takes to get these things up to snuff and presented to the world.
Granted, there were some that were not up to a level of “finish” that I myself would want in my own work but that’s a tricky thing to gauge. What is “finished” to some is half-assed to others and one could only hope that with some constructive criticism or lack of sales/show invites, those artists will become introspective about their work, take a step back to regroup/learn new techniques and over time, hopefully develop the technical prowess to take it to that mythical “next” level, should that be a part of what they want to take away from all of this. Maybe it’s just me but with every show that I participate in, I always see pieces that make me want to work harder or give me inspiration and I use those things as an impetus to raise the bar on subsequent customs that I create. Because these custom shows run the gamut of artists from different subsets of our niche scene (fine art/2D vs sculpture/graffiti/street art/plush/miniatures/etc), it is only natural to see a wide range of styles and interpretations of varying quality, skill and innovation as those subsets all have their own measuring sticks for what is consider good vs bad. Put these styles together in one show and you’re bound to have some disparity in the perception of quality if you only use one set of baseline standards to gauge, regardless of what is valued within each discipline. Converse to MAD, I sculpt a lot on my pieces because I’m not great at painting 2D but the additional sculpting on the piece doesn’t by default make it better than someone that paints only. The benefit of the doubt should be given to each individual fan/potential buyer as to what they value and speaks to them in art.
I know it’s natural to want to compare pieces in a group show against each other, especially since everyone was given the same platform to work with but it does seem a bit unfair to do so when each artist brings-in/appeals-to their own fan base. IMO, each piece should be gauged relative to the artists’ existing body of work and whether or not it’s one of note within that larger context. But in regards to the old standby customizers where their customs adhere to the style they are known for and it seems like the same ol stuff but different platform, well….that’s ok. As very passionate people in this scene, our awareness level is way amplified and fatigue sets in because we ourselves are always around it. But I would hope that in the oft-chance that new fans to this genre happen to go to a show where our best are represented and become enamoured because they saw stellar (to us, familiar) work? This could only be good for all of us and the scene in general in the long run. Anyways, given the higgedly piggedly mess that the “designer vinyl” scene is in at the moment, it would be a bit presumptuous to assume that any of these Sketchbot customs, or pieces from other custom shows for that matter, have much resonance to influence anything beyond what the original, base expectations were – artists doing their take on this particular toy being shown at gallery for sale to collectors and hopefully new fans. Anything in addition is bonus and I certainly don’t think it’s truly hurting.
In addition, it seems rather odd to me to gauge these pieces based mostly on their artistic merits, when every participating artist has their own motivations that led them to create their final submitted piece that happens to mesh with what they’re trying to say artistically. This too should be considered. The romanticized notion that the sacrosanct mantra of an artist is one of pure and unfettered self-expression, but oftentimes it’s also to showcase their work in hopes of building their own brand equity, to sell because this is a part of their income, or for just plain fun and the experience amongst a million other reasons. The notion of making money off art and art by some design should not treated like some ugly inbred offspring that is relegated to attic behind the hidden door behind the fridge. For example, Chris Ryniak’s comments about this being a business and that he treats it as such is a prime example of why he is at the top of his game right now. Not to say that his work would not be just as stellar if he wasn’t getting paid but he treats this art form with a great deal of respect, he knows what he needs to get out of it and is smart enough to understand the larger world-view, especially from a business standpoint as to where his artistic contributions lie within the context of the broader “art” world. Couple all of that with mad talent and there you go.
On the other hand for me, if my pieces sell or not is inconsequential. If they do sell, then great but if not, I’m fine with it also. Unlike a lot of the customizers in this scene who want to parlay this into bigger opportunities, my #1 goal is to keep myself sane and to get opportunities to work on sweet action projects so that I can get my geek on. As a designer for the last 14 years, I finally threw my hat into the customs ring because I needed to express myself in a more tactile manner and to provide a catharsis from the everyday grind of the corporate world. If the zombie apocalypse were to happen tomorrow and I had never gotten into customs, my entire body of corporate work would be gone, just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in the ether. I may stay up til the wee hours of the morning stressing out over if I’m going to be able to finish a piece in time, but the stress is the result of wanting to do a great job, up to my own standards, not because I have the weight of having to make money off of it or that it will somehow get me further up the ladder within the echelon of artists in this scene. I just let my stuff speak for itself and if you like it, thank you so much. If you don’t? Thanks for looking. I appreciate the audience and opportunities that result from it either way and I am having fun.
Lastly, for those that are new and trying to “break” into the scene? Well one, the scene isn’t that hard to break into when it’s really this small. The artists who are truly phenomenal are going to rise to the top regardless. Yes, the divide between a phenom and an artist that has to really work hard at it is definitely that broad so the risk of even 10 green artists diluting the work of a true master is just not going to happen. Two, everyone deserves some sort of chance, somewhere along the line. Joanne of Dragatomi gave me a chance in April to show at Wondercon as my first arena. 8 months later and I’m working on some really cool and personally exciting projects. In this Sketchbot show, there were a lot of non-established names which is fantastic because you never know if one of us going to pull some really cool stuff out that otherwise be relegated to showing off on the KR board only. Again tho, I’m just a fan of it all so I may be a bit more lenient compared to the art-heads with more exquisite taste.
In closing, the ball was ultimately in Steve’s court to pick and choose who was to be included in his show and regardless of why they were invited (skill, fame, sales track record, nepotism, etc), he did put on a great show IMO since he chose a broad range of artists exhibiting many different styles, he gave a very public opportunity for both new and old faces to show their art, and from a behind-the-scenes viewpoint, he did most of the due diligence that one would expect from a curator, including mail updates, reminders and promotion in a professional manner. To say that the show wasn’t a success is a bit harsh as you could have had A+ names doing D- work and conversely, but to me, it met my expectations and more (Map Map? Kelly Denato anyone?) I agree with Sergey that great curation is key and I think Steve did try his best. I know that Jeremy wasn’t specifically trying to pick on Steve and this show as the problems that he’s brought up are endemic to a much larger issue within the industry but we’ll have to get into on another day.
Thanks for reading this long ass post and thanks Jeremy for the recognition on my piece in his article, that was really nice of you. Thanks also to everyone that has commented here, I almost forgot what it’s like to read intelligent discourse in a non KR-forum kind of way.
I’m really enjoying reading everyone’s comments. You’ve changed my mind about a few things and strengthened my conviction about others.
A whole bunch of issues are coming up in the comments that are interesting points worthy of their own stories (selling artist proofs, nepotism and “backslapping,” art vs. toy), but this critique is simply focusing on the shows themselves. The owner of a shop that hosts toy shows once said to me that very little work actually sells; the shows are more of an occasion for the community to drink and be social. I think that’s very telling.
I’m not sure everyone is necessarily making work for toy shows with the intention of selling it. When you look back at the rosters of custom toy shows from five years ago, the folks involved were largely working artists. Doing a custom toy was just another canvas (vs. being a fine artist, a graphic designer, a street artist, etc.). Nowadays, the rosters are really varied. This can result in refreshing and unexpected talents, or it can mean someone is entering the show because he/she wants to hang out. Some of you commenters might not think that is a bad reason (and maybe it isn’t), but it does result in an overall different kind of show.
[Not to mention the fact that people aren’t BUYING custom toys like they were five years ago, and the prices artists can get for them is also much less…]
I’m coordinating a group custom show next month for my friends, Shin & Nao. We all really thought about the roster, and we did task the artists with a theme. We also have a large, clean space to present the work. I’m my own worst critic, so if I can please myself on this one, I’m hoping it’s going to be a great time for everyone involved.
I posted about this topic on my blog briefly a couple of months ago (http://tinyurl.com/25fa42d) and I know Jeremy chimed in a little on Twitter about it as well. I actually expected a post on here sooner, but I’m glad to see it has finally popped up. Thanks to JRyu for pointing the way yesterday, I had the chance to read the article and all the comments.
Like Steve said earlier, there were 10 artists that backed out of this show and I was one of them. It wasn’t something I wanted to do at all and I was actually really stoked about this show, but the sheer volume of overlapping shows I was apart of was just too much. I already knew I would be hard pushed to finish it on time bc I would be doing my 20″ custom Qee around the same time. Rather than trying to get something done just to get in the show on time, I emailed Steve and let him know that it wouldn’t do his toy and or me justice putting out a half finished custom. So instead I bowed out of this show in order to keep a level of work I personally deem finished and complete. Thankfully Steve is a busy guy and understood where I was coming from. I felt terrible, but again, I would have felt worse turning out a rushed custom just to make deadline.
I’ve only been involved in this scene for about a year and a half and I’ve learned a lot along the way. I wanted any and all shows in the beginning bc I was a new name and I was trying to get my work out there. I was thankful to anyone that invited me to take part in a show. Turns out that’s apart of the learning curve I had to learn the hard way. I’ve now learned to take the Ryniak approach on choosing which shows I’d like to be apart of and which I’d rather let go by so I can pursue my own personal endeavors instead.
Since the materials discussions has been thoroughly dissected, I’ll only touch on it briefly. Like others have said, materials are only a part of what we call art. The materials I use are something I’m comfortable and familiar with. While some may think I just pick them up and slap them on vinyl, that’s not the case at all. There’s a lot time spent on planning and executing each piece. The amount of time put into each one is ridiculous to most outside the niche. In the last 3 days of my 20″ Qee custom I put in over 30 hours, that’s on top of 2 and a half weeks with mixed amount of long hours of work that lead up to the finish.
I look at each custom I do as another way to change what I did before. Adding a new detail here and there or altogether new effect that hasn’t been seen yet. At the same time though, I don’t discredit those artists that only paint on the toys. Those artists are usually highly skilled in what they do and what they do works great!
For the newbies in the shows, I understand where they’re coming from. To judge them too harshly isn’t something that should be happening, I understand they need to learn from their mistakes but it can definitely be intimidating stepping into a show with big hitters. Although they should use that as fuel to make their customs even better than they thought their skills were able to do. People like JRyu, Chris Ryniak, Kevin Gosselin, and a slew of other top customizers only push me to keep going further with every piece. So that is a big plus for having so much talent in any given show. We need the new blood with the old to keep the diversity alive. Do we need huge 50+ people shows to do that? Probably not, but that’s not up to me and that’s up to the people putting on the show.
Although I do think some of the shows would do a lot better with a theme, even a loose one would help keep the shows cohesive to a degree. That way we would see all the different takes and styles, but in a way that would look uniform and like an actual show. The Little Monsters show I was apart of in October had that theme and the results were a monster riddled gallery of all varieties. I’m all for more shows like this in the future and I hope the people putting them on are watching and learning from all of this. 2010 has shown the good and bad of customizing and I can only hope we roll forward with the good and trim the fat of the bad.
I’ll stop here bc I know I’ve repeated myself somewhat from my original blog post, but I felt the need to voice it again in this arena. Not to mention, a lot of what I was thinking has already been voiced.
Thanks for the post and open forum Jeremy. Keep up the great work.
i missed the show, but i generally agree with you on all points.
but i can’t agree that the distinction between art and craft being materials(yes, i like you said “risky line”). i mean, there is a pretty ongoing battle as to what separates art from craft BUT materials is a odd separator – i’d certainly put up artist skill and intent before their medium.
Looking forward to seeing how much discussion this generates.
I’m interested in seeing where the line between #1 and #2 above is drawn. Taking the Sanrio show as an example, where do both painting a Hello Kitty on the side of a Smart Car and sculpting one into a Hello Smarty lie? Which is more art, and which is more acceptable in this context? Where the artist is injecting his creation onto the source (of car).
I think many if not all of the criticisms you express here could be applied to the majority of custom shows in this scene. I assume you are using this show as an example because it’s fresh in your mind and amplified issues that you have clearly been considering for awhile. Understandable, but perhaps bares mentioning in your commentary.
Overall, i believe this was a sgood show. Things change — many artists have moved on from customs as an art medium in part to seek new challenges and expressive freedom.
Finally, it makes me nervous when people start defining art and setting supposedly objective standards — what is craft to you may be art to someone else. Also, variety is a welcome thing. There is no one litmus test here. Certainly not one based on the materials an artist uses to express themselves. Its the expression and the execution that matters. Not all pieces fits into the confines and halls of the museum of contemporary art.
I appreciate this article as an attempt to raise critical questions and to try and improve custom shows and the medium as a whole. However, it feels heavy-handed.
actually, after thinking about it, i think that “craft” being used as a *bad* word is really just inaccurate.
the thought i’m pretty sure jeremy is trying to express probably needs to involve phrases like “poorly executed ideas” and “lack of technique” and “did you really just fucking hotglue fur and popsicle sticks to that?”
but not “craft.”
(i didn’t go to the show, have not seen the work and am not talking about any specific figure)
I have not seen the Sketchbot show in person yet and can’t comment on it. But how is this different from any custom vinyl show? Or any group art show?
With all the group shows I’ve seen in person, there will be pieces that blow you away vs. pieces that aren’t impressive.
As a fan, what are your expectations for an “art toy show”? And what exactly is “art show caliber”? I don’t have the answers for the second question because tastes are so subjective. What you love, I might hate and vice versa.
@shing you are exactly right about what I meant to say re: hotglue and popsicle sticks. How did you get inside my brain? I’ve inadvertently just thrown CRAFT under the bus, and for that crafters, I am sorry. I need to do a quick strike-thru and edit before my crafty wife gets home and sees this.
Keep the comments coming!
“Art show caliber” is a subjective phrase, but it’s one that should be in the mind of the show’s curator.
We can all disagree on what it means specifically, but at minimum, the work should be finished. We can all disagree on what finished means, but it typically means polished. We can all disagree on what polished means, but you get the picture.
I chose this show as a jumping off point because Steve is a friend–as are many of the customizing artists–and I know he is open to critique.
I’m looking forward to checking out Le Merde’s Funbuns customs show at Super7. I was at DesignerCon when it opened, but in my definition, the pieces I’ve seen so far were executed in “art show caliber” quality.
Wow…I have so many things to interject, I think I’ll limit myself here though.
The art vs craft issue is a bit moot to me. Art IS subjective, but again I think what you are talking about is execution, not necessarily materials used. I know plenty of what we like to CALL craft that is impressive in it’s own right and should not be discredited.
To address your #2 (An occasion to impart a specific artist’s signature style onto another artist’s work) It should be NO surprise that most of these custom shows are really only a way to advertise the figure being customized, which is why I personally turn a lot of shows down. If it is a great figure or I have a personal reason for doing the show I will have a go at it, but I have no intention of customizing something that I think is doo doo. The organizers of the shows benefit by booking artists that have a distinct style and established fanbase. A good deal of my collectors buy my customs because they are something that I did, not because of what the platform is. This IS a business and I’m doing the work to promote myself and do work that represents what I do, not advertise the toy any more than I have already just by being in the show. That being said, I have made an effort as of late to make sure to retain a good deal of the shape of the original figure, otherwise I might as well be doing something from scratch and defeat the purpose of a custom entirely.
As far as the rushed nature of some of the customs…I will agree. I don’t think we should be cramming as MANY people into these shows and be a bit more discerning about who is chosen based on their past track record for quality work. At the end of the day these are custom TOY shows, but I take this seriously and consider it an artform and would like to see this genre continue to grow rather than get diluted.
okay, I talked too much, sorry!
Great point, Chris, about the undeniable business aspect of most custom shows. They have become a standard or almost de facto method of marketing vinyl toys. Perhaps there are too many custom shows at this point. The large number seems to dilute collector interest, artists’ interest and effort (lack of time / feeling of been there done that), and willing talent.
While it’s much sexier and appealing to focus on the creative output — art, toys, and more, the biz side of things often plays a critical role in the patterns and trends which form around all of this.
Wow. Okay, I just arrived at our 2nd vacation stop and have an Internet connection to chime in…
“Art Show Caliber” is always on my mind when inviting potential participants. It pains me when I see pieces arrive that were obviously rushed and last-minute, because then I question why the person was so excited to be in the show in the first place only to drop the ball down the road. Now, this is only the 2nd show I’ve put together, but we had 100% attendance in the first one. For the 2nd show, 10 artists had to drop out (some with legitimate concerns) or simply didn’t bother to send in a piece for Friday’s opening. That reflects not only on the individual artist, but also my decision whether to continue with a third show and who to invite.
I try to be discerning in my selection process – sure, I want a few “A-listers” but mainly try to get artists that I follow and whose work I enjoy and genuinely want to see their interpretation on my character. I also try to give new-comers a chance to be in a high-profile show, as I was given the same opportunity by My Plastic Heart for my very first custom show (kaNO’s Moneygrip show) When people submit work that is sub-par I can only sigh and display it, knowing full well that they could’ve done a better job.
I definitely agree that use of material is totally Irrelevant – i’ve seen some amazing work done with popsicle sticks. 😉
Okay what i’m going to write will probably offend some people but I should point out this is not, in any way, shape or form directed at Steve personally – it’s a general point i’ll be making but using this show as an example.
I think 90%+ shows like this are BS. The reason? I assume Sketchbot has taken a few years development, tweaks etc to truly reflect Steve’s artwork and design aestethic. It’s his work and as a standalone piece it works.
But to get other people to take a piece not intended as a platform toy (I have issues regarding those too 😉 ) seems just bizarre. Why do it? The cynic in me thinks it’s a cheap-ish way to drum up support and PR for a toy.
Not to say it isn’t “fit for purpose”…but of course some customs are going to be sub-standard and others downright crap. It cannot be easy for another artist/toy maker to put their own stamp on something that is so completely and utterly somone else’s design.
This isn’t some random ‘blob’ toy that allows a flexible design, ie a Munny/Dunny that was always first and foremost going to be a ‘platform’ toy. It’s a strong shape/design…I know for example a few of the guys in the show I spoke to struggled to know what to do with the pencil and decided to just throw it away rather than try and incorporate or shoehorn it in somehow.
So the end product is symptamatic of the base materials.
Then there’s the artists chosen. I know why people choose specific guys time and again – i’m thinking Triclops for example. It’s because their custom work is amazing time and again. But I can’t get excited about a list of the same old same old people as it’s usually pretty easy to guess what they’ll come up with, after all they have their own aestethic. A rusted robot from Cris Rose….who’d a thought it!
So Steve and Munky King get great PR, the artists involved may get some money if their piece sells. But the more and more these shows happen the returns will diminish over time through fatigue – at least they will for me. I just cannot get excited about seeing the same names over and over regardless of the base toy being used.
The days of custom shows that took risks and tried to do something different seem a long, long time ago.
As i said this isn’t directed at Steve – I think his toy is actually damn decent and I respect the effort he’s taken to get it made. I also know a few of the people wouldn’t have taken part due to packed schedules but did so and made time/put in the extra hours because they like Steve. That speaks volumes for the man.
But as a custom show…sorry but for me it just doesn’t work in the slightest.
Whilst I don’t think that the materials used can generally be used as a gauge of how good a piece is, and doing customs is all about bringing your own twist to a toy, I do think that quality can be an issue at shows. I’ve never been a big fan of customs that completely change a toy, so that you cannot actually recognise that the toy was ever involved, but that’s just personal preference.
I was lucky enough to be asked by Steve to do a Sketchbot for the first show at MPH. I fall into the new-comer category that Steve talks about in his post above, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. When I was asked to do the custom I felt absolutely obliged to do the best I could and poured countless hours into it to this end. I also attended the opening night of the show, bringing my family out for our first ever visit to New York in the process. What I found very interesting at the show was the overall quality of the pieces was pretty high but there was one in particular, by what would be deemed an A-lister, that was actually quite embarrasing. The execution was shoddy – honestly, it looked like it couldn’t have taken more than an hour at most. That did make me wonder why they had agreed to be in the show at all.
I suspect for many artists participating, there is a time/money equation going on, and rightly so. It might just be me and the way I work but I find doing customs, whilst fun and satisfying, simply wouldn’t work out finanically if I was actually trying to make money from doing it, especially with the large gallery cuts. And so it’s easy to imagine that some artists limit the time they spend on a custom because of this. My Sketchbot took more than 40 hours to complete, plus $100 to get it to the US in one piece, but money was not the driving factor for me here – it was the first custom show I’d been asked to participate in and, as a rule, I’m a bit of a perfectionist anyway. I guess that’s why doing custom toys would never make me money
My only dissappointment from the show was that my piece didn’t sell. Yes it was priced at the high end, and yes I’m pretty much completely unknown. I took advice on what level to price it at and in the end it didn’t shift. I have to be honest and say that I think that’s partly due to the number of participants. MPH is a small gallery, and having 50 customs all for sale in a single show is a lot. Can their footfall actually find a market for that many? Looking at the MPH shop online, nearly half of the Sketchbots shown are either still for sale or no longer available, like mine, as I now have it back with me. That also must be a consideration for artists at small venues, and how much time they then spend on a custom – what are the chances of actually selling the piece? Looking at this second Sketchbot show, there were even more pieces in this show.
I do wonder if the shows should feature fewer pieces. This gives each artist more “attention” and, bearing that in mind, makes it more exclusive to be included and hopefully will lead to more effort being made. I know if the first Sketchbot show had been smaller it might of meant me not getting an invite to participate, but maybe it’s better for the artists, and the curator, to limit the quantity for the reason given above.
I don’t pretend to me an expert in custom shows at all, there are just my thoughts based on my own experiences.
As an organizer of ten custom toy shows in the middle of nowhere, I see the only reason of a custom toy shows — have more people getting their hands dirty and actually make something in toy medium, get the feeling and maybe go further. And true, 90% of those attempts it’s glitter, glue gun and blood splatters drawn with sharpie.
For established artists (as well as customizers) with a lot of projects in pipeline almost every time it’s nothing more than translating their style into new sculptural shape. Lucky if they have extra time to think of the concept. But in any way it’s a win win situation for toy producers and involved artist.
Curator is in tricky position here. Marrying beginners or lazy people with amazingly done “caiber” artworks is not an easy task. Combination of these two with artowrks in “grey area” might can make both win show or a total disaster.
So I think custom toy show curation is the most important thing with so many different artists involved. Great curation should drive the whole thing.
So many great points being made here! I want to echo Geoff’s comment that perhaps this particular show is taking some heat BECAUSE Sketchbot is a strong figure. For better or for worse, it’s easier to craft a custom on a truly blank platform, and likewise, it’s easier to dismiss middling results. Therefore, a backhanded compliment back at Steve then about the strength of his original, intentional design!
Dang, now I’m even more curious about the Sketchbox show. I’ve got to see these pieces for myself.
re: Geoff’s comment – I felt the same way about the Rotobox Celsius as a custom piece. Then, I saw the custom Celsius show at Toy Art Gallery and my mind was BLOWN! That’s one of the custom shows of 2010 that have stood out for me.
Sorry, I meant *Sketchbot.
I think there’s some very good points on both sides of this. I personally think the Sketchbot is a really awesome design (otherwise SOLID wouldn’t have taken it on and manufactured it) with a lot of opportunity to “create” on. Yes its a strong character, but it does have plenty of space to use for artists to work on. So Steve, don’t take any of the above as a hit to the figure.
My personal feeling is that large group “custom toy” shows have become so popular that it has flooded the market. There are so many products being released now that it does seem to be almost expected to do a custom show as part of the release. I turn down many shows due (mainly) to lack of time, but also interest in the figures, and the fact that there’s little money (if any) involved “if” the piece sells. I also have big issues with gallery/ stores who don’t pay up/ or return pieces after a show. (but that’s a whole different topic)
As for what artists do with the piece they’re given, who’s to say what is “good” and what isn’t… its subjective to the viewer. I think the fact that someone is putting time (even if not a lot) and energy into something creative is a win win for everyone involved. The roots of this genre were about creative freedom and expression in toy form. I think its a good thing that so many artists now work on toys. Sure, maybe some aren’t the same calibre as others, but as with anything the cream will rise to the top. When I do work on other figures I rarely add to the basic shape as I’m not a great sculptor, and prefer the challenge of turning the toy into my own via paint. I tend to lean on the characters/ styles I’ve done over the years to really identify it as mine… It’s my preference and if it seems a “cop out” then so be it. In the end if I’m happy with the outcome then that’s all that matters.
Just my 2 cents…
In my humblest opinion, I respect any artist that is willing to put his work on display to be judged/shared. If I don’t like a piece, is it because I don’t understand the piece? I will assume the artist put his heart into his work for each show/project. Art is so subjective that anything can be considered as art if there is an audience for it. Art can be done on any canvas, object, platform period. Craft and art goes hand-in-hand, no? Sure there is stuff that look unfinished and is just…stuff. But being an art fan and young collector, I like what I like because it means something to me. Maybe I don’t know enough art but that is my two cents.
All large group art shows experience this same sort of exquisite vs crappy results. I don’t see any reason why the toy shows are special and would be able to avoid this phenomenon.
I think it’s a result of a large pool of people working in different ways for different reasons, lack of a theme or show style, and a reality that toy customizing is not a profitable business to be in.
Burning Man has a theme every year as a fall back for when people aren’t sure what to make. Am I missing something or is a toy show theme (to embrace or reject) considered uncool?
It seems that what you are sad about is the fact that the pool of invited artists are able to make a small room filled with small objects seem crowded…crowded with things of a questionable quality or reason for existing, crowded by already seen ideas, crowded by the desire to be noticed and accepted by the established industrial design complex…
In all honesty, I think the #2 criticism is actually the best hope for the toy art scene…when artists are encouraged to do what they naturally do, they will be skilled enough and more motivated to take their ideas further.
Healthy discussion is all well and good but the only way you’re going to effect any positive change on this is to simply do it better.
The only way you’re really going to make artists or galleries or curators get it together is by doing it better yourself. Raise the bar, and they can either follow or fail.