It Ain’t Child’s Play Anymore
- 18 June 2020
Art toys of late have been making quite an impact on the auction scene, racking up astonishing amounts under the gavel. Just last year, THE KAWS ALBUM by artist Brian Donnelly, estimated at around 1 million dollars, was sold at a record breaking $14.8 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. With the growing demand for these art toys, we can’t help but ask the question: what exactly makes collecting art toys so interesting?
Art toys cover a whole breadth of genres – from vintage memorabilia and movie and television merchandise to artist collaborations with designer brands. With its affordability, wide-access, and affiliation with pop culture, art toys become an attainable way young collectors can be involved in art. With the addition of limited runs of units that make these art toys difficult to obtain, the demand for these art toys is at an ultimate high. Collectors are always on the lookout for the next release or next collaboration.
For most, the joy of collecting art toys hits a sweet spot that draws nostalgic strength from experiences of when they were younger, and allows collectors to form an emotional attachment to these collectibles. Having that link to things they loved as children gives these toys sentimental value. Whether it’s the excitement of winning and then unboxing a piece, or the deep sense of satisfaction one gets when viewing these toys still unboxed and in pristine condition, lined up on one’s shelf, it’s undeniable that seeing these art toys evokes the nostalgic, possibly competitive, and playful within all of us.
Art toys also address a different aspect of the collector’s spirit. Though similar to a regular toy in medium and playfulness, these objects go one step further by presenting complex ideas through juxtaposition and appropriation. With juxtaposition, artists playfully combine the cute and playful with adult or sinister themes and backstories. Popular examples are works by Japanese artists Yoshimoto Nara and Takashi Murakami as well as toy series – the likes of Mr. Clements Petit Lapin and Adorable Circle of Life by Alex Solis.
With appropriation, artists take cues from pop culture, integrating iconic themes or symbols into their art. US-based company Kidrobot collaborated with the Andy Warhol Foundation; while the Japan-based design toy company Medicom, best known for its Be@rbricks collectibles, has worked in the past with the estates of Jackson Pollock, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. These art toys can almost be likened to sculptures, a nod to the commercial age when pop art and kitsch were born.
Another example is the KAWS Companion, whose body and gloved hands harks back to Disney’s Mickey Mouse, though replacing the face with a skull donning the iconic cross eyes. In this work, Donelly marries street art, fashion, music, and pop culture with fine art. KAWS, created in varying sizes and media, has successfully exhibited in institutions such as the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, while also finding its way onto the shelves of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Design Store. In recent years, the artist has appropriated pop culture icons such as The Simpsons, Spongebob Squarepants, Sesame Street, and Peanuts, and has also worked with brands such as Dior, Calvin Klein, Nike, Uniqlo, and MTV. These toys have been featured in the personal collection of pop culture icons Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Drake, and Travis Scott, turning the toys into a 21st century status symbol. Perhaps one of the more amusing moments in art toy history was in 2017, when MoMA’s website crashed, unable to handle the thousands of users who waited for several hours just to be able to get their hands on a newly released $200 KAWS Companion.
It goes without saying that part of the appeal of art toys is their ability to bring pop culture and fine arts straight to contemporary audiences in new and fun ways. But it’s not just their accessibility and edgy aesthetic that makes them popular. It’s also the art toys’ ability to quickly shift and transform to consistently meet the demands of all kinds of collectors today. Whether you gravitate towards statement pieces with dual meanings or witty iterations of pop culture icons, there’s always something audiences can connect to, proving the art toys’ worth as a mainstay in the contemporary art market. Big or small, art toys reveal a driving demand to simply experience joy, infusing life in what others may simply see as just plastic and vinyl.
See the wide range of art toys on offer at the Gavel&Block ‘editions’ sale on Sat 27 June.