Brian McCarty, Free Range Furilla
To borrow a photojournalist term, newest TTP artist Brian McCarty is embedded within the vinyl/art toy movement. Few others have the access, experience, and perspective he has, and whether it’s his respected stance within the art toy movement or his understanding of toys’ significance as sociocultural and aesthetic signposts – his toy photographs are simply unmatched. After getting his BFA in photography in 1996, Brian worked for Mattel and then on his own, doing the now iconic photos of art toys that captured what was perhaps the peak of the art toy movement and commented on everything from pop culture to conflicts in Croatia, the Middle East, and beyond.
His 2010 book, ART-TOYS, remains a seminal collection that, besides being exceptional shots in and of themselves, actually capture the breadth and depth of the art toy movement. TTP is thoroughly honored to offer prints of some of the most popular images from ART-TOYS, and Brian was nice enough to take some time to chat with me about it. We talked about the economy, his introduction to art toys, the night he left the corporate world, and much more here in Part I. Part II, and more info on his WAR-TOYS project, is here. (Also go look through his TTP collection!)
Thumbtack Press: This thing on?
Brian McCarty: Hey there!
TTP: So I wanted to bring up the ART-TOYS preface because, well partly because I just reread it, but also because I forgot how deep Rushkoff goes into the art toy movement as a postmodern art form.
BM: Doug is an absolutely amazing writer. It was a huge honor to have him contribute, and I purposely chose someone outside of the scene. I wanted an almost academic view from someone with a bird’s eye view.
TTP: I was impressed by how relevant his points still are.
BM: They are indeed. The scene has changed, but the motivations haven’t.
TTP: How’s the scene changed?
BM: The economic downturn of 2008 really hurt its momentum. Companies that had small profit margins couldn’t take the same risks, so we started seeing a lot of the same molds reused and some over reliance on the platform toy.
TTP: And really only the big players were still able to churn stuff out?
BM: Yeah, the few artists that had a good foothold did ok, but there were fewer and fewer new artists in the scene. At least fewer ones that were getting toy company support.
BM: And innovation really suffered compared to the years before.
BM: Can’t blame anyone. It’s just how the economy played out and how the collectors responded.
TTP: How’d you yourself get into it all? Seems like everyone has an interesting story of the first time they went into Kidrobot or some such.
BM: I came in very, very early. Pre-Kidrobot and the rest.
TTP: Yeah? How?
BM: While at Mattel in ’99 I became aware of Michael Lau and Eric So.
BM: Blew my mind. I started grabbing what I could.
BM: By the time I left Mattel in 2002 the scene was starting to come up a little more. I connected with Jonathan Cathy, then at a company he started called Achy Breaky Toys. Originally, I shot one of their Mullet Head characters just down the street from his house in West Hollywood, trying to win them as a client. This is before I realized that we were all pretty much broke then.
BM: But Jonathan loved it and started introducing me around, first to his partners Melissa and Jennifer, then to Jim, Greg, and Antoi from STRANGEco.
TTP: So that’s when it started overlapping with your photography?
BM: Yep. We all just sort of piled in together and got to know each other more and more through NY Toy Fairs then Comic Cons.
BM: It was really early and really raw, full of optimism.
TTP: The art toy world’s community is pretty strong.
BM: Very much.
TTP: So what was the big change?
Brian McCarty, Frogger
BM: I remember Toy Fair 2003 as the real change for me. I was fresh out of Mattel, thinking that I needed to keep pursuing toy photography from inside a big toy company. I had great contacts at all the big firms and used the event to meet and greet folks. But at a very fancy dinner at the Plaza with CEOs and Sr. Execs from the who’s who of the toy industry, I decided that it wasn’t for me. I left mid-dinner, caught the subway downtown, and met up with what would be the core group of the scene. We had a really fun night.
TTP: Ha love it!
TTP: What would it have meant? Ads?
BM: Absolutely. I could have easily stayed in the safe corporate world, but it wasn’t for me.
TTP: And it turned out ok.
BM: I’d probably be a miserable exec somewhere, or really, I would have hit the same revelation later on and be right where I am now.
BM: I’ve been on this path my whole life, as much as I was too scared to take the needed risks before 2002.
TTP: So then my question is whether you were always thinking of it on the levels that Rushkoff talks about, the post-modern implications, etc., or were you more just enthusiastic about the toys and the raw passion of it all?
BM: Rushkoff has the benefit of being a media critic. In the moment, I was just doing what I loved with a bunch of artists and toy pros that were friends.
BM: My art has always flirted with post modernism, but then it’s never been something I’ve spent too much time thinking about.
TTP: Did you ever design a toy or want to?
BM: At Mattel, I was desperate to make my own characters and toys.
BM: Sadly, I’m not talented in that way. Even after taking private lessons from the lead sculptor from Barbie at the time – Hussein Abbo, sadly now deceased.
BM: My goal since has been to partner with an artist/designer to create a unique cast of characters. Eric So and I came very close, but again 2008. Funding evaporated, and the project never got off the ground.
TTP: Man I’m hearing more and more of those stories.
BM: I have my sights set so high that I refuse to half ass it. Eventually the time will be right, and I’ll find the right partner.