Real Talk About Custom Toys

Before we get down to brass tacks, there are two things I need to put out there:

  1. I’m a big fan of Steve Talkowski‘s pencil-wielding Sketchbot character.
  2. 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 GOODChris 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!