Old toys, new toys
Chico sculptor Alan Carrier talks about his fantastical new work at the Chico Art Center
“Jessie, no. It’s not a toy,” a mother says as she guides her 5-year old son away from one of Alan Carrier’s pieces at the Chico Art Center.
The boy’s confusion is understandable. Carrier’s solo exhibition, The Dog and Pony Boy Show, on view until Oct. 27, has all the bright color, motion, tactility, and humor of the most fantastical wonderland.
Here, old toys and related objects have been masterfully assembled into robot, animal, and nonsense beings, wild and playful icons of the illusion of 1950s space travel. Lunch boxes become bodies, dominoes a cryptic message, and thermoses and flashlights transform into arms and legs. Some have bells that ding, springs and winding parts, and wheels that urge motion. They are sculptures, but even in the sanctity of the gallery space they incite a rush of temptation to touch them.
Alan Carrier has always been two things, a collector and an artist. But only recently did he combine these passions to produce this “family of rag-tag amusing robot beings.”
He began his artistic career as a photographer, and in fact first came to Chico from his native Canada to teach photography at Chico State University (he was laid off during the cutbacks of the early 1990s). Soon the objects he was collecting began to find their way into his work, which became more and more three-dimensional and moved farther and farther away from the wall.
As a business owner, he still deals in antiques, specializing in toys and objects from the 1950s. In the meantime, he has been involved in the arts community here in Chico for over 10 years, as an artist, a teacher and the current director of the Coyote Gallery at Butte College. I met with Carrier, a compact man with long, braided black hair and a fondness for turquoise-and-silver bracelets, at the art center to talk about his work.
“I love words,” Carrier says about his process. “Wordplay, humor and ideas are the foundation. The title is very important.” He says that often a sculpture’s title is like an armature or axis around which the piece is created. From there he goes to his extensive inventory of found objects and starts to lay it out. Other times he begins with a drawing. And sometimes, while working on a piece, he may come across an object or a combination of objects that has enough of a structure or essence to begin a new piece.
“So sometimes the titles come ahead of time and orchestrate everything, or the idea, or in other situations the title comes after. And sometimes there is a transition,” he says, pointing out pieces where he has gone back, sometimes even a few years later, and changed them.
Despite the visual cacophony, he assures me that everything in his sculptures has a purpose. “Nothing is on there for no reason,” he says, “even if the reason is simply that it works visually.”
There is a definite push and pull that happens between the viewer and Carrier’s art. He is working with the human figure, so we immediately want to relate, and he is using all of the bright and shiny objects that we associate with our American appetite for desire of things. But there is also a repellent effect: There is so much visual information and stimulation, and the great size of some of his pieces can be overwhelming. But this is intentional: Carrier wants us to feel the weight of our consumer culture.
He manages to achieve some surprising subtleties in the attitudes and gestures of the creatures, even though the body parts are ready-made objects. In “Telephone Robot Exploring the Red Planet,” for example, the receiver arms seem flexed and brave, and there is a confident cock in the knee that reinforces the triumphant pose.
“I can imagine all of these toys and related objects flying around in space, and then all of a sudden they come together at some point,” he says. “[They’re a] lot of lost things that get put together to create something else, yet the essence of the object is still there, the individual parts, but the whole is different.”
The pieces beg to be deconstructed. To figure out Carrier’s tricks is like a game, and in that process many layers of meaning become apparent. For instance, many of the figures are armed with toy guns or lasers or other space weaponry. Carrier says that guns remind him of when he was a kid, of his imagination and playing boy games. But he also has a strong social consciousness, which is evident even in a short conversation with him, and guns also serve to comment on the rampant violence in our society. “Why do we look at it, why do we find it entertaining?” he asks.
In “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime,” the biotic being looks as if it has gathered all available resources to make this social commentary. In “Lost in Space,” a robotic figure is in animated orbit attached to a revolving arm. Carrier seems to ask: Are we as a society lost in space? Have we not learned anything from our destructive materialistic ways? He uses the fantastic images and the “gluttony of thought” from 1920s and ‘30s films and books that celebrate space travel to create the sculptures and infuses them with concepts of entertainment, imagination, the alien and politics.
“When I was a kid, “Carrier says, “my mother used to buy me metal lunch boxes every year, mostly space and cowboy and time ones. One year she was in a hurry or something, and she bought me one like this,” he says, pointing to a piece of red-and-yellow-plaid-printed metal that has a new life now as a skirt on one of his pieces. “I carried my lunch in a brown paper sack that year.”
Carrier expects—and indeed wants—everyone to have his or her own individual reaction to each of his pieces. “Maybe it reminds you of something,” he says, “or the title reminds you of something, but there is something on that or in that that catches your attention. Maybe you had that toy, or you had something that looked like it, or the color or movement. There are parts to relate to and enjoy.” He understands the intimate relationship that people have with toys and related objects, despite the mass-produced aspect of them. He notes that he loves those differences, and that the artwork becomes a new piece every time someone looks at it.
Carrier is excited about his next project, a show in San Francisco at the Artists’ Gallery, a division of the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition at the Chico Art Center is kind of like the kickoff, he says, a way to share his work with the community. And he is pleased and thankful for the amount of positive response he has gotten.
“What I mostly care about is that you have an experience. And hopefully that experience is a good one," he says. "When I come in and see somebody looking at the work, it is alive again."