I've always wondered why I, a recent adult, am so drawn to art toys. Am I just feeding into capitalism? Absolutely. But turns out it's been indoctrinated in me since I was a teeny tot, and you probably have too.
My age group, the elusive generation that can't seem to relate to Millenials or Gen Z, were raised on Japanese video games and TV show characters. By the age of 8, I could name the first 150 Pokemon by heart. I collected what feels like a million Hamtaros from the $2 store. By age 10, my brother had introduced me to the Final Fantasy series, and my childhood friend taught me the wonders of Kingdom Hearts. The act of collecting things I loved was instilled in me before I knew what consumerism was.
Art toys have become much more popular in the last few decades because art has become a brand.
More and more artists are speaking to our branded world: the indoctrination of capitalism, the influence of marketing and the impact of consumerism. The scene was set by Andy Warhol when he introduced mainstream culture into the art in the '50s. With the birth Campbells Soup Cans (1962) and Brillo Soap Pads Box (1964), fine art culture was brought down a few pegs. John and Jane Doe were no longer excluded from the art space.
Fast forward 70 years and artists like Takashi Murakami don't even distinguish between their various artistic enterprises: he believes that a DOB keychain is as much art as his sculptural works are. Art figures also mimic the culture of collecting art- they are released in small quantities. Their value increases over time and they become limited edition pieces. So if you had to sell them later down the line, you'd be making a profit. A rather lucrative hobby wouldn’t you say?
Welcome to the world of collectable art figures
The day I stop talking about KAWS is the day my friends and family need to start asking questions. KAWS is the heavyweight of all heavyweights in the collectable art world. Beginning his career as a designer and street artist, the man knows how to successfully cultivate a brand. Through the Companion figure, KAWS has created a signature morbid style so versatile that it has made him one of the biggest selling artists of the 21st Century. He can apply the "X X" style eyes to virtually any pop-culture character and make it instantly recognisable as one of his collaborations.
But isn't buying toys still caving to the consumerism pop artists critique?
To an extent, yeah probably. Though I think you'll be pretty hard pushed to find interests and hobbies that aren't somewhat dictated by consumerism. Nowadays, many artists continue the conversation by blurring the lines between sculpture, collectable and toy. But sometimes, art is just art. And why can't toys be art?
Ron English is an American artist who uses photorealism as a means of exploring brand imagery, marketing and popular culture. In 2005, English brought his vibrant and very unsettling characters from his paintings into the 3D world. He established PoPaganda, making him one of the few artists to own the company that produces his art figures. The artist cites accessibility as one of the main factors in his decision to commercialise his characters. "Vinyl toys for me, it gave me a closer connection with everybody."
Much alike KAWS, he has a core cast of instantly recognisable characters including MC Supersized, Mouse Mickey and Temper Tot.
Buying art simply isn't accessible to the majority of the population.
Prices of commercial art are notoriously high and the likelihood of us all becoming millionaires are slim. So chances are, you are probably never going to buy work from your favourite artist. Sad but true. This is where the art figure world comes in.
The leading female artist in the designer toys market. A Pop-Surrealist, McPherson's characters are other-worldly. There is a mystery behind the eyes of her creations- they are recognisable to us in form but they don't feel familiar. The luminescent blues and pinks she uses reinforce this familiar, unfamiliar paradox.
McPherson typically creates poster art, making her art easily translatable into toy form. This has led to her designing toys with toy big wigs: Medicom, Kidrobot, Mighty Jaxx, Dark Horse and Toy2R.
The designer toy world is saturated with male artists.
Is this interesting? Yes. Is this surprising? Heck no. The search for female artists within the toy industry is slim and the search only came up with Tara McPherson and Yayoi Kusama. Why might this be?
The concern is less about female artists not being interested in this field because I'd like to think in 2020 we'd understand that an inherently 'masculine' interest does not exist. Instead, it makes you question what barriers women artists are still facing in the art market.
The Japanese toy company that has it's little lego feet firmly planted as the leading art collaborators. The figure is an anthropomorphised bear with a potbelly and lego arms and legs. Launched in 2001, BE@RBRICK figures were initially used as a free-promotional gift before quickly developing into the perfect blank canvas for brand designs. The company follows the same scarcity principle that dominates the art market, and a KAWS designed BE@RBRICK will set you back anywhere upwards of $5000.
The figures come in 5 sizes and 5 VERY different price points. The smallest is 100% which measures in at 7cm. These are the figures used in the 'Blind Boxes' or a lucky dip. The biggest of the bunch is 1000% which stands just shy of 1m, coming in at 70cm.
The allure of owning a piece of something you love is addictive.
Be it owning your favourite album on vinyl, or owning one of your favourite artist's toys, it all comes from the same place. We want something tangible. And BE@RBRICK gives us that.