Hampden's Vinylmore hosts mini masterpieces

Dozens of local artists are creating elaborate toys that are far from child's play

  • Jim Lasher and his wife Ayumi Yasuda are working on their entry in this year's Vinylmore contest. This year's entry, pictured, is titled "Otsukare 2" continuing the theme from last year's, which won best-of-show and was sold to a collector.
Jim Lasher and his wife Ayumi Yasuda are working on their entry… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
March 25, 2011|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The 4-inch-tall vinyl doll with the aquarium for a head contains two chubby, bug-eyed puffer fish floating in shellac sea. In one corner of the tank is a tiny wire and nylon fishing net. Below the neck, the doll resembles a Japanese chef. One hand grasps a fillet knife.

Parkville artists Jim Lasher and Ayumi Yasuda are trying to replicate a typical puffer fish restaurant in miniature, so a second vinyl doll has been transformed into a beer vending machine. Inside the case are cans about the size of a shirt button, adorned with the labels of common Asian brands.

Clearly, the roughly three dozen art toys that will be exhibited at Vinylmore 4 in Hampden starting Friday aren't your daughter's Barbies and Kens.

"In the United States, we tend to think of toys as mass-produced, inexpensive items for kids," says Benn Ray, the owner of Atomic Books, where the show is being held. All the pieces were crafted by local artists.

"Often, the dolls or action figures are made to resemble licensed characters from comic books, television cartoons or the movies," he says.

"But in Asia, where art toys originated, it's not necessarily a childish pursuit. They're typically created by artists, produced in limited editions, sold in punk-rock fashion boutiques and bought by collectors. The level of detail is so high that you'd never give them to kids to play with."

A selection of pieces from last year's Vinylmore 3 on display in Atomic Books are marvels of ingenuity. And, just like any other work of art, they communicate a fresh point of view. In one piece created by Peter Chang, the doll's head has been sliced off at ear level, and an ominous-looking tank painted military green takes up the space that ordinarily would be occupied by the brain.

Another figure called "Velvis" is encased in a box filled with a dark fabric with a thick, soft pile. For those familiar with Baltimore's art scene, the black velvet is the signature of the painter Tony Shore. Elvis' head has been rendered in profile all along the doll's vinyl body, with the singer's chin ending just above the doll's knees.

Even the puffer fish restaurant isn't merely whimsical. Though puffers naturally are comical in appearance ,with tiny mouths that appear to be smiling, the fish contain a toxin that is many times more deadly than cyanide and for which there is no known antidote. Diners who gobble up a puffer entrée — known as "fugu" — literally are placing their lives in the hands of the chef who attempts to cut away the poisonous parts of the meat.

The two pieces by Lasher and Yasuda are humorous, to be sure. But they're also an implicit commentary on human appetites and the price we're willing to pay to indulge them.

"I've eaten puffer fish," Lasher says. "They're delicious. But when your next meal could be your last one, you do think twice."

Art toys for adults, sometimes called "urban vinyl," date to the late 1990s in Hong Kong, where a designer named Michael Lau sculpted a three-dimensional figure and photographed it for an album cover. Soon, vinyl figures began popping up in Asian art galleries and clothing boutiques.

The pieces were originals instead of copies of familiar characters, and they had a contemporary, cutting-edge feel. Even today, if a store catering to art toys has an oversized red G.I. Joe for sale — as Atomic Books does — the iconic soldier doll is preparing to launch a rubber chicken, not a hand grenade.

Art toys combined the intellectual heft of paintings and sculptures with the playfulness of toys. They caught on big in Japan, where their diminutive size made them ideal for a heavily populated island nation with limited living space. Some are priced at more than $1,000.

Manufacturers also began selling blank white vinyl figures called "dunnys", "munnys" or "labbits" for about $10 apiece. The figures function like empty canvasses and are meant to be custom-designed by the purchaser.

Artist Sara Tomko says the impetus to replicate the world in miniature has been around for centuries.

In her view, a young art school graduate with purple-streaked hair who labors to build a stamp-sized Chinese carryout container is kin to the senior citizen who constructs, stains and upholsters a Chippendale chair for a dollhouse.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I loved playing with tiny toys," Tomko says. "I made my own dollhouse furniture and my own doll food. The outside world is big and scary. The appeal of creating a miniature world is that you control it. You can escape."

Tomko has been a John Waters fan for as long as she can remember, so she is creating a figure for Vinylmore 4 modeled on the late Divine. The dunny will wear a copy of the red fishtail dress that that Divine wore in "Pink Flamingos" and will have Divine's flamboyant blue and white glitter eye makeup and mane of golden curls.

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