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Rich Tomasello's Rhino Toys at Glow Gallery

Playing on the Dark Side

Rich Tomasello, whose work is on view at Glow Gallery on Allen Street through August 27, is an artist who has clearly hit his stride. The collection of sculptural objects in the exhibition, perhaps best described as some nefarious variant of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s fabled Island of Misfit Toys, represents a two year period of exploring, refining and expanding a concept that revolves around a satirical response to threatening present-day realities. The series debuted in the 2013 Big Orbit Members exhibition where Tomasello exhibited two action figures—NRA Teacher and Student—both clad in battle armor. These faux toys were convincingly packaged in colorful, marketing saturated, plastic blister packs and appear that they had been plucked off the rack at your neighborhood Toys”R”Us. As a father of two young children and longtime art teacher, Tomasello was intimately and profoundly affected by the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and the cataclysmic nature of that event served as the impetus for his fictive action figures. It is the ironic kinship that these figures have with existing toys that give them their power. He has since expanded the series with new action figures that reference other weighty socio sociopolitical issues such as spousal abuse, the gay scout controversy and the spy tactics of the NSA.

At some point Tomasello began to interpret the ubiquitous blister pack more conceptually and the result are several works where the packaging—covered in white paint thus obliterating any context for the toy it contains—is impaled by arrows, blades or barbed wire. These objects, that imply attack under the cloak of anonymity and leave ample room for viewers to contemplate their meaning, are the most metaphorically rich works in the exhibition.

The more literal action figures gave rise to larger boxed toys that include Pipe Bomb!, Girls Gas Mask, Molotov Cocktail! and Grenade! Each of these toys is emblazoned with all the visual devices that toy manufactures employ to extol the appealing features of their products. Think overblown phrases like “newest toy sensation sweeping the country.” To fully appreciate each toy, viewers should read the enthusiastically toned, tongue-in-cheek text written on each box. Tomasello, creating under the guise of Rhino Toys (a fictitious 30-year old company touted as the “gold standard in the world of toys”), has masterfully mimicked the visual vocabulary of the toy industry for his own devices. The craftsmanship of the works that have been described as “darkly comic instruments of violence and mayhem” and the illusion of authenticity he conveys is impressive.

All you have to do is take the statement on the Grenade! packaging that proudly declares “Rhino Toys just keeps upping the ante” at face value to understand that the next logical step was for Tomasello to create faux commercials for the toys. Playing in a loop on a monitor in the gallery, these well produced short videos are edited and voiced to faithfully mimic their actual Saturday morning television counterparts. If you are curious to see the mastermind behind Rhino Toys, you will find Tomasello and his equally gleeful family playing starring roles in the Christmas morning commercial for Pipe Bomb!

The success of this exhibition lies in the fact that Tomasello has thoroughly explored his subject and the result of all his time and attention is a highly cohesive, thought provoking body of work. By creating a critical mass of related works, he avoids the possibility that his whole enterprise could be dismissed as a one-note joke. His hybrid of an art exhibition and display booth at a toy convention opens an accessible portal for viewers to consider how our world is becoming irrevocably altered and how that transformation affects us all.

Having produced other Rhino Toys merchandising materials including posters, stickers, buttons and wristbands (conveniently available for purchase at the gallery), the question remains whether developing more satirical child-centric products—the sky is the limit here as you consider Tomasello’s corporate toy marketing muse—will deepen or weaken the artist’s ability to evoke an empathetic response from his viewers. I believe that the answer is the latter and that this very worthy investigation has admirably reached its culmination.

To the artist’s credit, in the short span of under two years, work from this body of work and an equally successful related series have been included in regional juried exhibitions at the Erie Art Museum in Erie, PA, the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY and the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY.

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