‘JOHN MANSHAFT: PUT OUT FIRE’ Latex posable action figure; latex rubber with wire armature, handmade cardboard box, inkjet on paper, by Randy Regier.
Stepping into Randy Regier’s occupation of Whitney Art Works is like entering a parallel-universe 1950s FAO Schwartz showroom gone awry. Planes and astronauts are suspended from the ceiling, a freeze-frame of their reckless careen toward the gallery floor. A meticulously rendered boat “The King Queen” is perched near the door, though after being shot down and submerged in Portland waters it has matured to a rusty bedraggled has-been. Here we see racecars, planes, dolls, and spaceships advertised by beaming children in lab coats and headbands, or fair, muscular men with reassuring smiles; all in a familiar and trusted mid-century aesthetic. Upon closer inspection, a cynical or sadistic air wafts from the plastic and cardboard.
Two bodies of work are on view in the gallery, “Selections from the Portland Neck” and “Hecho En Maine,” both investigating our material culture, and specifically the role of toys in forming a child’s worldview and assumed cultural narratives. Inspired by actual vintage playthings, Regier appropriates imagery and subject matter to exploitative effect, shifting the messages implicitly linked to accepted gizmos and thus questioning the societal modes the toys support. While somehow imbued with a sense of innocence, toys as a medium here present a canvas for the exposure of hypocrisy and duplicity fed to children about the ways of the world. Through the lens of fiction, Regier attempts to reconcile the optimism and dreams of the ’50s and ’60s with the real unraveled narrative that is history.
In “Selections from the Portland Neck,” which parades in the front gallery, Regier’s land of misfit toys speaks to gender politics, colonization, genocide, propaganda, progressive bravado, and body image. Regier is no tinkerer. His fabrications are seamless (due in part, perhaps, to his background in the auto-body industry and antique toy restoration). His works are so convincingly authentic that an inserted Regier logo on packaging here and there comes as a surprise. The toys are aged with hyper-realistic signs of overuse, and wear-and-tear. Steel is rusted; cardboard boxes are frayed at the corners and laden with watermarks and mildew, heightening their faux-status as “found.”
Regier’s work reeks of gimmick, and that is exactly the point. Take “Transformed Red Man,” a toy whose package boasts a happy Native American in traditional garb carrying a book, but whose contents include only a work desk and a swivel chair. Or the series of “John Manshaft” action figures, packages bearing strong, happy, capable workmen — archetypical ’50s men — the actual doll appearing like a wimpy Pinocchio blowup doll wearing nothing but black socks and revealing tighty-whiteys. Like children unable to see the disparity between the culturally accepted fiction and reality, we are seduced by the scenarios these toys present.