Within the increasingly popular field of collectible plastic and resin art toys, some artists are set apart by the ambitiousness injected into their creations. Acting as a sort of modern-day mixture of Gepetto and Dr. Frankenstein, Bob Conge cannibalizes old toys to produce new, imaginative creations and invents complex, entertaining worlds from which each one-off or small-edition-series beast hails. The current show at Phillips Fine Art and Frame showcases his recent sculptural works, as well as some art prints of his installation work.
"'The Toy as Art' would be a befitting phrase to describe the arena my recent work inhabits," says Conge in a provided statement. "These are pieces inspired by the vivid memories of a fervent belief in the likes of Santa and Frankenstein, the tragic loss of that vibrant reality, and on occasion my revulsion with the reality of today." Conge's work celebrates dwelling in a more innocent, richly imaginative state of childlike immersion in endless possibility, but he also occasionally shows his fully mature and critical-of-this-world's-evils mind with works that comment on war and greed. One example of such works is "Death Panzer," a terrifying skull fixed to a tank toy, ready to wreak havoc on your best frenemy's toy armies, but also emerging from a darker, truer place that Conge understands better than a child ever could.
Conge may have unwillingly succumbed to growing up, but he's retained his sense of wonder and works consciously against the learned trait of self-censorship, which murders the creative impulse in so very many adults. Conge describes his early process as pure, unfiltered, unself-conscious play – while sketching out new ideas in the early mornings, he lets his creativity flow without questioning it. "Almost all of my ideas for new pieces come to me during this period upon waking from sleep and I spend the rest of the day working out how I can bring the ideas to life," he says. "I have no idea where the ideas come from and I do not force or try to direct the process, I just let it happen as if I am listening to the voice of someone else."
The toys that Conge creates exceed the wildest dreams of any kid, but are fragile collectibles meant for adults. His works of sheer awesomeness include "Great White Gunkanjima Kaiju," a shark-head-topped piece with crab claws for arms, and a torso and legs completely covered with shells, ropes, squids, tentacles, and more in monochrome. LED lights inside the figure shift the colors and glow through perforated scars on the shark face. The glow-in-the-dark "Ice Cream Stone Walker" is a menacing though sherbet-colored ice giant with a craggy texture.
The show also includes several large folio, limited-edition prints of shrines created by Conge, which are inspired by the contextual forms of Mexican nichos as well as roadside shrines to accident victims that I saw while traveling in Greece. The works combine the familiar images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, religious iconography, hearts, honey-soaked tea-bags, and other bits of minutiae. "My boxes imply the historic connection to their inspirational form," says Conge. "I see them as vintage stages upon which one-act plays are performed by objects that life has used and discarded."
Not only is Conge an artist, he's also a weaver of complex tales and personal mythologies. The artist founded Plaseebo in 2004 as a shop dedicated to creating unique one-of-a-kind collectible figures and designing original figures for his Ultra Limited editions. The website includes a charming, hauntingly sweet allegedly 4,000-year-old "backstory" of Walter, an elderly (and possibly dead) collector of broken, discarded, and forgotten toys, who passes the time allowing ghost children assist him with his creations.
Walter, of course, is Bob Conge. "I am a collector, and have always been as far as I can recall," writes the artist on his website. "I remember, as a young boy, my most prized possession being a small box in which I kept colorful or uniquely shaped stones, butterfly wings, bird's feet, dried flowers, a skull I had carved from wood, a small red plastic A-Bomb, and a wavewashed piece of deep blue glass." Even early on, the artist consciously grouped components from nature and of his own creation, alone or combined rife with possibility and symbolism. "This first collection was a micro cosmos of my world at that time," says Conge.
While in college, Conge took out a student loan he didn't need in order to finance an eccentric operation: traveling door-to-door to buy up unwanted and hopefully unique toys from the attics of strangers. "Thus began a collection of early American cast-iron, horse-drawn fire wagons, pre-war wind-up German tin litho vehicles, and on and on," says Conge.
Conge hand-sculpts all of the Plaseebo figures and hand paints every piece of each of his editions, which are typically limited to four or five pieces, but rarely exceed 15 in number, such as the glow-in-the-dark "Plaseebo Mummy," in two editions of five pieces each. The current show includes dozens of Conge's small, seamless sculptural figures in vinyl and resin, which fit into different categories of creatures, each with their own back stories. Babydolls and animal hybrids, aliens, beasts, robots, zombies, and more call up the childhood story, "The Island of Misfit Toys."
Though many of the pieces are brutish in a boy's-world manner, a few have a certain extra level of darkness injected into the works, a biting sarcasm directed at frustrating evils. "Sometimes the process is sparked by my concern for what I see as deplorable human behavior, such as our war in Iraq," says Conge, "which inspired my 'War' figure," a skull-topped beast with horns and a gaping red maw and claws, its body crawling with the tiniest of toy soldiers. Other times, it's the banks and "their unfair practices," says Conge, that invoke his ire, and inspire works such as "Bank of America/Come Suckle on the Tit of Credit," which is a toy piggy bank with bottle nipples for teats and a skull face, which can be hidden by strapping on a little mask of a human face.