Friday, May 14, 2010

Toys, Sculptures-they're all the same to me

My love for the three dimensional cartoon figure goes back before computer animation was even invented and way before my professional life began. I clearly remember at the age of five or so, my preoccupation with hand puppets, particularly one I owned of a frog. I can remember delighting in the way his eyes were simply two orbs stuck to the top of a simple sphere, which had a cut across it's diameter that provided him his perfectly frog-like mouth. I can still recall the satisfying clop! those two shapes made when closing them hard with my little hand. He wasn't my only puppet. I had a terrifying Jerry Mahoney ventriloquist dummy as well, who I would push down the stairs to see in what freakish position he would land.
The attraction to these weird homunculi stowed away somehow into my adulthood and is not only evident in my work, but on the shelves of my studio as well. These various toys, sculptures and maquettes scare the hell out of my daughter, Paulina and she refuses to come downstairs to my studio unattended. In truth, I can't blame her. Some of them are pretty damned creepy.
I thought it would be fun to show a few examples to you and tell you what little I know of them, or at least what they bring to mind.

The obvious resemblance to Darla not withstanding, I found this little bronze sculpture of a pitt bull irresistible. Apart from the beautiful molding of it's cartoon form, it weighs a highly satisfying couple of pounds, deceptively heavy for it's small size. I would bet money that it portrays Bonzo, a popular cartoon dog from the 1930's, created by George Studdy.

A happy couple.
From Hell.

This heavy, plaster sculpture of a cat is almost three feet high and has all the stuff I love about good character design. The exaggeration of the pose and the breakdown of the shapes make me happy every time I look at it.

This is a contemporary piece of sculpture, done in papier-mache, I believe, by a brilliant young talent named Chris Sickels, who singlehandedly runs an enterprise he calls Red Nose Studios. Amazingly, he creates tableaus exactly like this one, for use as editorial and advertising illustration, among other things. This means that he has to do them fast! Not only does he have to first conceptualize the piece, but than must sculpt the figures ,design and create the costumes , paint the figures and props and then photograph the final result. Go to his site and enjoy this unique and beautiful work.

Several years ago now, my friend and illustrator, Steven Guarnaccia, decided it was time to sell part of HIS collection of weird toys, which by the way, is astonishing in it's breadth and goes way beyond strange cartoon characters. Steven has always had an amazing eye for design and the books and toys he collects are evidence of how sharp his eye really is. I'm guessing that he decided he could no longer live with this mutant elephant "toy" and I'm beginning to wonder the same thing.

Above is what was once a Victorian rubber squeaky toy. You might not be able to see it, but there is absolutely no fun in this guys face.
That's what I love about it.

I'm embarrassed to admit how many of these superhero figures I own. My obsession with them has almost nothing to do with the characters they represent, as there are literally hundreds of different statues you can buy that portray them. No, what I love about them is that they were designed by Bruce Timm, a comic artist with the reductive eye of Brancusi. Look at the shapes on the Batman figure and how beautifully distilled they are. Timm is credited with resurrecting and reinventing Batman for television, Batman, The Animated Series (check out the killer title sequence!). The genius of these over-the-top, film noir inspired adventures, was in the style that Timm created, which not only streamlined the look of all of the characters, but in a way that actually embraced the limitation of farmed out television animation. In other words, he took the budgetary restriction and made it an asset.

(I'd love to credit the sculptor but I can't locate his name. Anyone?)

The very first image at the top of this post is of a painted metal figure that once sat atop some kind of early vending machine and probably turned a crank when a coin was deposited.
I wonder what the machine sold.

Souls, maybe?


  1. Nice pieces, specially the happy couple from hell. I also love little sculptures and figures...

  2. Very nice assortment of sculptures/toys. I always love seeing new (or old) designs in sculptures and toys. Always good to get the imagination churning with character ideas.

  3. Peter, what great pieces. I agree, the dog does look like Bonzo, a beautifully drawn character and a fine reminder of Darla - not that you need any. The old squeeky toy has something of a contemporary Venus of Willendorf about it. I think, without exception, every artist I know has several character pieces that oversee their work. There's probably some psychological reasoning that connects creativity and odd little characters such as these, but in truth, I wouldn't want to hear it.

  4. Last picture is embarrassing Pete. How much are you selling the Batman and Robin for?

  5. Looooove the misshapen elephant! keep!

  6. This entry also brought the fun memory of how you could even turn your hand into a 3d character model: as a Dinosaur. Your boundless and constant imagination-- thankfully you wonderfully bring it to life as do these keepsakes inspire. Curious if your daughters hand has learned the dinasaur walk too. Enjoyed your views. THANK YOU

  7. I love the way you make the point that "Toys" and sculpture are really the same. Aside from perhaps the materials used in casting, the artists work no less hard, and apply no less brilliance to the work. Maybe there is an art show in casting a few toys in bronze?!

    Craig Elliott Gallery

  8. this post is so exciting! love that red nose studio piece!

  9. Those penguin sculptures are fantastic.

  10. Bruce Timm is an amazing draftsman, and I can see why you like his stuff. Like you, he can just flat-out draw. His mastery of different techniques is also mind boggling: Marker, brush & ink, pen & ink, graphite, watercolor, it doesn't matter. He uses the unique property of each medium with mastery. A great artist!

    Just wanted to say- I recently got a copy of your book , A Sketchy Past, and I can't tell you how many times it carried me through an intense comic book project I'm working on. Everytime I felt uninspired I would pick up your book and remember how much fun drawing can be! Got me back to work every time. In fact, it made me realize that fun may be the most important part of drawing. All the technique and academia in the world wont create a memorable drawing, or motivate an artist to work. Many little gems in your book: Like where you mention that an artist searches for shapes that please them. Great little thing to remember.

    Sorry to go off topic. Just wanted to say thanks.

    Hey - what time is your event at Parsons on November 13? Would love to attend.

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