Meet Rich Tomasello on the street, and the perpetually agreeable artist and educator greets you with the vivacious energy and unreserved zeal of a game show host. His buttoned-down good looks and demeanor run counter to familiar artist stereotypes. Rich Tomasello is a nice guy, good family man, and wholesome American. He’s also the artist who has created the darkly comic instruments of violence and mayhem known as RHINO TOYS.
RHINO TOYS began as Tomasello’s response to 2012’s highly publicized Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The artist, also a Buffalo art teacher, adapted two poseable plastic toy characters into Teacher and Student action figures, complete with guns, ammo, and armor. Tomasello went on to develop an extensive line of “products” for the modern child, complete with colorful packaging that scathingly mimics the marketing tactics of real toy companies. A collection of this work will go on display at Glow Gallery on Allen Street August 1–27.
In art terms, these objects fall under the category of sculpture, but they look like refugees from a demented toy industry convention. Tomasello’s world of crass commercialism recalls Dan Akroyd as Erwin Mainway pitching Bag O’Glass in an early Saturday Night Live sketch. Any pretense of childhood innocence is forsaken. High profile atrocities, and the attention the media give to remotely potential perils of childhood, have created a false impression that this generation practically lives in a war zone, and RHINO TOYS plays to that perception, spinning it to the extreme—often with hysterical results. (Statistically, children are extremely secure in public schools, and threats to their safety in general are no greater today than they were in the 1970s.)
“Girls Gas Mask” is a bejeweled pink apparatus with ample My Pretty Pony-style appeal, resplendent in its colorful display box that proudly proclaims that the product is “Ready to Use.” This is where the artist takes his work beyond the irony of marketing riot gear to children. “Girls Gas Mask” is also a stinging indictment of the toy industry’s practice of catering to gender stereotypes. Do pink plastic, colorful fake jewels, and purple hearts make an implement of self-survival widely associated with war more girl-friendly?
Then there’s “Pipe Bomb,” which is pretty much self-explanatory. It comes with the following fine print: “WARNING: AGES 6 AND UP, CONTAINS: 2 PIPE BOMBS, TIMER, FUSE, EXPLOSIVE, SHRAPNEL.” The toy encourages kids to play terrorist, much like earlier generations played shoot-em-up cowboys, army, or cops and robbers. I once had a convincing-looking shoulder holstered snub-nose .38 that used “shootin’ shells” and “greenie stick-M-caps” to add “authentic” sound while firing plastic bullets at my friends (which I had to retrieve and reuse, slowing down the action quite a bit). Is “Pipe Bomb” really such an implausible leap? Viewers are encouraged to read the tartly sardonic promotional pitch on the backs of this and all of Tomasello’s packaging.
Other works target issues of male machismo, paranoia, misogyny, and lost innocence. School backpacks come prepacked with toy armaments, and mock children’s coat cubbies are neatly lined with gas masks and, occasionally, snow boots. In Tomasello’s world, boots are an option, but gas masks are a necessity. The exhibition will include a toy surveillance camera with an operating model trained on the audience, adding to the mock-sinister atmosphere.
The RHINO TOYS trademark is a variation on Tomasello’s earlier two-dimensional series of works that used graphically stylized Rhinoceros-like human figures to address, on a personal level, what the artist describes as “a brutal physical attack I experienced in college.” That work tackled issues of “individuality, gang mentality, masculinity, power, and oppression.” Like gangsta-rappers who justify violent and misogynistic lyrics by arguing that they simply reflect the realities of their worlds, RHINO TOYS reflects the fear and secret desires teeming below the surface of a growing segment of the population. Dark indeed, but devilishly clever—and funny.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and longtime Spree art critic.