Artists all over the world have been designing off-the-wall plush creations as part of the "Urban Toy Movement," as it is loosely known. Typically patterned after pop-culture collector's items such as those championed by L.A.-based Giant Robot magazine and KidRobot shops, the trend is inspired by everything from Hello Kitty to hard-core manga and is represented by vinyl or plush "ugly" creatures stitched together like Frankenstein.
Murphy recently visited a second-grade class to give an artist talk; thinking the kids would be interested in stuffed animals, she discussed some of her plush work -- which includes a coat made entirely of stuffed-animal parts that's currently showing at Studio Aiello. The kids loved her creatures, but when she explained that she made them by cutting up old stuffed animals and then sewing their incongruous parts back together in mismatched combinations, Murphy says, "every second-grader in the room burst into tears.
"As an artist, I wind up using the refuse of society to create something new," she notes. "But I admit I do feel guilty when I cut off their heads."
Other artists in Plush manage to temper the creepier aspects of their creations with an odd sweetness. Boulderite Aaron Barker's soft sculptures -- buck-toothed, dog-like and humanoid blobs of stuffed fabric with black-dot eyes -- exude a needy, abandoned quality, as if they'd just been pulled from under the couch after having disappeared years ago. And Barker's wife, Breonna Noack, combines simple childlike contours and attractive fabrics with bold appliquéd features. Though Noack's works are sometimes strange -- some unexpectedly sprout two heads -- they seem like they'd be perfectly at home resting on the arm of some hipster's sofa.
Katie Taft's long-legged dolls, consisting mainly of heads attached to attenuated limbs, echo the wistfulness of Barker's works. "Although they enter the world as mass-produced items, each one of them has a soul that's dying to come out," she says in her artist's statement. That philosophy is clear in her elegant yet faintly disturbing pieces hanging artfully on the gallery wall. One of her objects d'art sports a panda head that forces a double take of a nearby Murphy piece combining a panda body with a Medusa head made of green frog legs.
Some of the most surprising creatures in the show were made by Markham Maes, whom Murphy describes as a "tough street kid" more widely known for his screen-printed T-shirts, graffiti art and tattoo designs. Maes, whose grandma is helping him learn to sew, was in Murphy's store, Pod, and mentioned that he'd begun working in the genre. He submitted a few creations, and it was immediately obvious that Maes and plush were meant to be: His classic "ugly" creatures are instantly compelling, with odd surprises such as eyeballs hidden in their hands.
Perhaps the greatest revelation for Murphy in mounting this particular show has been finding so many local cohorts. "It blew my mind to find out that someone else in town was working with plush," she says.
A word of warning, kids: Lock up your toys. In this modern world, nobody's safe.