Toy Story

Though the toy's stamina and lung capacity were admirable, a lifetime of smoking gave the man a competitive edge in the race: Tom Hazelmyer and his Qees
Nathan Grumdahl

If you grew up during the Reagan years, you might remember the short-lived Madballs craze. One of the toy industry's first really big post-Garbage Pail Kids marketing phenoms, Madballs were slightly spongy baseball-sized orbs sculpted with grotesque, or just gross, faces. Each individual Madball had its own personality and its own name (e.g. Slobulous, whose face was covered in drool). Marketed to ADD-type children who were sick of Garbage Pail Kids, Madballs were designed to be thrown at your sister, thereby freaking her out. Advertising tagline: "Catch them if you dare."

Tom Hazelmyer remembers Madballs as one of the first toy lines he actively collected. "I'm into anything subversive or disturbing," explains the owner of Grumpy's bar and founder of the influential and iconoclastic record label Amphetamine Reptile over a late-afternoon drink. "Anything that shouldn't be on the rack at Toys R Us. Anything that children really shouldn't be looking at. These things with heads that pop off, you know." Madballs, Hazelmyer continues, appealed to him as art objects: Some of the toys were, in fact, designed by moonlighting L.A. underground artists and illustrators who later became well-known for their own work. "I liked that it was this totally fresh approach--making an objet d'art out of a toy." And so he began accumulating Madballs. Once, when Hazelmyer was a still young man in the Marine Corps, his suitcase popped open on an airport baggage carousel and spilled its load of the gross-out toys.

Which is all just a roundabout way of explaining "Qeedrophonic," the latest exhibit at Hazelmyer's Ox-Op Gallery. Using eight-inch-tall Japanese figurines called Qees as a template, Hazelmyer invited around 40 of his favorite artists to decorate and/or disfigure the toys in any way they pleased. The local graphic-design outfit CSA, for instance, turned the formerly cute toy into a very Madball-like match-wielding pyromaniac clown. "The only kind of parameter I set was, they had to fit on the stands we had," Hazelmyer explains. "I just told them, 'If you're going to melt the thing down into a lump or whatever, let me know in advance.'"

His drink finished, Hazelmyer heads for the former industrial shed behind Grumpy's that houses Ox-Op. Before opening the gallery a year and a half ago, he held art shows in a side room of the bar. That turned out to be a less than ideal venue, however. Besides, Hazelmyer says, "Some of the snootier element can't see buying art from a place called Grumpy's."

Inside the little gallery space, the Qees have been lined up along the walls on little plastic platforms, as though part of a macabre toy-store display. Qees, in case you were wondering, derive their name from their original function: key chain ornaments. Popular in Japan--center of the toy industry, as well as the toy-as-aesthetic-object movement--Qees are pumped out in limited collectible editions by Toy2R, a Tokyo boutique design firm. Toy2R had already organized similar "art Qee" exhibits in Europe, Hazelmyer explains, and were therefore receptive when he called about getting some unpainted vinyl figures for "Qeedrophonic."

Though the Qees on display at Ox-Op still have goggle eyes and oversized heads, their aesthetic is far from Japanese anime-cute--not surprising, given that Hazelmyer's stable of artists hail from the world of underground comics, and lowbrow and graffiti art. The Qees, Hazelmyer explains, were simply a canvas for the artists to experiment on--no different, essentially, than a skateboard deck or highway bridge abutment. Gary Baseman's contributions, for instance, are recognizable 3-D versions of his cool/sick cartoons; Frank Kozik, a World War II buff, turned his Qees into machine-gun-toting soldiers; and L.A.-based artist Liz McGrath produced a pair of cute characters named Sir Raleigh Jones and Nemo the Mouse who've been flayed and turned into anatomy exhibits.

Outré though some of the pieces may be, Hazelmyer describes "Qeedrophonic" as a natural outgrowth of the merchandising he did for AmRep. When he was running the record label, Hazelmyer, inspired by rock posters and the art on 7-inch vinyl singles, started commissioning artists to create custom Zippo lighters. Many of those artists also ended up designing Qees. "Coming out of the music business, the parallels with the toy business are more than a few. There's indie distribution, an indie fan base. Toys R Us isn't going to jump on this."

A Zippo lighter or a Japanese toy might seem like a somewhat limited canvas. This is, to Hazelmyer, their great advantage. "I find this stuff a lot more appealing and aesthetically pleasing than a lot of the crap that's in museums," he says. "Unlike the art world of the past 30 years, where you can shit in a box and it'll be an installation at the Walker next week, I like that this is reinstating some boundaries. When you say, 'Here's a blank sheet of white paper. Go to town,' you can tell pretty quickly who has chops. I know that's taboo in art school, where it's like, 'You should do anything you want.' Well, fuck it. I didn't go to art school.

"Then there's this unspoken rule that thou shalt not have visceral appeal, thou shalt not appeal to the masses in any way, shape, or form. Well, the cute toy is the ultimate fuck-you to what I call the rock-on-a-string art crowd. I actually saw that at a museum once: a rock on a fucking string! My daughters couldn't understand why that pissed me off so much."

Of course, given that the art-toy movement is still hanging fire in Minneapolis compared to, say, Tokyo, Hazelmyer may be ahead of the art world's curve. (At up to $2,000 a pop, the artist-created Qees might not be flying off the shelves anyway). "It's hard to convince people in Minneapolis that this is huge everywhere else," Hazelmyer admits. "I always say, in 10 years, everyone's going to know who these guys are."

Hell, he might be sitting on the next Madballs.

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