Artist’s tend to have a fascination with toys that most people don’t understand. The common perception is that artists are wack-jobs and weirdos. Well, the vast majority of people are right: artists are wack-jobs and weirdos. If they’re not dressing all in black & wearing berets, they’re growing goatees & playing the bongos. Fucking nutcases. Anyway, in a positive sense, most artists are connected to their childhoods in one way or another. A child’s mentality is usually uncluttered by adult worries and I think that’s one of the keys an artist uses to unlock their talent. My early years of living near a toy store made a major impact on my work, especially my use of color.
In 2000, I picked up a copy of artist Ken Botto’s 1978 book, Past Joys. This is an excellent coffee table book (unfortunately, out-of-print) that covers the author’s discovery of old 1930s toys and the use of them in his art. In the Introduction, entitled Confessions of a Fanatical Toy Collector, Botto describes his reaction to these forgotten relics:
“It was in an old vacant, fake-brick-covered two-story house in a remote town in west-central Illinois. The house was located one block from the townsquare where the county courthouse sat. The town was surrounded by miles of cornfields and hog farms. From that house’s basement –crammed with junk and trash– rose the musty odor of mildewed boxes and one yellowed, moth-eaten, stuffed Donald Duck. It was there that I found the treasures, for in the bottom of one of these moldy boxes, were three identical 1930s tin trucks–in battered condition, with dents, rust spots, missing parts, and broken black wooden wheels. All had once been repainted bright red –probably the handiwork of some long-ago kid. They must have had the hell played out of them, I thought, and as I remembered some toys I’d had as a boy, some deep and strong feelings were rekindled.
I was a Californian transplanted to the Midwest to teach in a university art department. America had just landed on the moon; Buck Rogers was coming true. But I was in that basement digging like an archeologist–discovering the remnants of America’s past. I began to see more than nostalgic value in those toys, and the ones that followed them. I began to see them as sculptural art, a brand-new beauty, something to excite the eye and delight the soul.
The combination of colors were often bright and contrasting, were sometimes subtle. The cartoony shapes and forms seemed to be the genesis of much of contmporary art. They reflected the full-sized world but they also had an affinity with the absurd, the fantastic, the surreal. The toys had a sense of movement and history–for me, they recaptured the past better than the actual objects they imitated.
This book made an immediate impression on me as soon as I opened it. Botto presented his toys & accompanying kitsch in an extremely novel way. All photos in the book were taken outside in natural sunlight and the effect can often trick the viewer into believing what he’s seeing is real. In many instances Botto used old ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s postcards to create a background for his cast-iron cars & trucks to wheel around in. In some cases you do a double take, not realizing everythings in miniature. I was really taken with this book, so much so that I decided to adopt the same approach in my own photography.
Toy soldiers were one plaything that was always accessible when you’re a kid. They’re cheap & if they were set on fire or sucked up by a hotel pool skimmer, you could easily buy more. After I first saw Toy Story I became reacquainted with these little plastic figures. You can find them in any drug store, along with other cheap trinkets such as dinosaurs & astronauts, but if you look back through pop culture history, these tiny playthings were once highly regarded by the children who played with them as well as the adults who made them.
The 1950s and ’60s were the zenith of plastic toy soldiers and their ilk. Dozens upon dozens of bagged figures & boxed playsets were produced, most notably by Marx Toys Click Here: Check out “Louis Marx and Company - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”. But there were other manufacturers as well like Auburn, Tim-Mee Toys, Aurora, and MPC. The subject matter went beyond the military to cover things like deep sea creatures, Zulu warriors, life on the farm, the circus, medieval knights, and the American Presidents. Television & Film character sets were also made, including The Flintstones, Zorro, Ben-Hur, Robin Hood, Yogi Bear, Batman, and even Disneyland.
What’s immediately noticeable is how detailed these small toys were. The quality & style always varied, but even the crappiest toy has an appeal. You can see a major drop in quality from the ’60s to the ’70s as companies closed and copies of originals were reproduced over & over again until everything became watered down. For instance, most dinosaur toys available today are sloppy copies of Louis Marx’s great 1961 Prehistoric Times playset figures. Disturbingly on the other hand, certain green army men currently available are actually crude clones of Airfix Models’ Nazi soldiers originally manufactured in the 1960s. The overall drop in quality is a shame even for such an insignificant product. It is another example of American companies closing shop & losing ground to cheap, foreign manufacturing.