In New York artist Nathan Vincent’s new show, “ Let’s Play War!” Vincent clothes large-scale soldier figures in cozy knitted coverings, exploring “gender roles and gender permissions” that are implicit in the toys we give to kids.
Anyone who saw Bellevue Arts Museum’s fiber-art show, “The Mysterious Content of Softness,” is bound to remember Nathan Vincent’s life-size, yarn-constructed “Locker Room.”
With its showers, lockers, benches and urinals all rendered in crochet, Vincent’s 2011 installation took loopy pleasure in creating a traditionally male environment using traditionally feminine craft techniques. “Locker Room” was funny. It was precise. It was a mindbender.
Now the New York artist is diving deeper into the same realm with “Nathan Vincent: Let’s Play War!”
‘Nathan Vincent: Let’s Play War’
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. First Free Friday, through Oct. 18, Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; $5-$12 (425-519-0770 or bellevuearts.org).
His subject this time is plastic soldiers — the kind you played with as a kid, the kind you can still buy by the bagful at any toy store.
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Vincent’s soldiers, assembled in a windowless gallery at BAM, are divided into two armies: one in green uniform, one in tan. They stand about as tall as the average 6-year-old.
Their aggressive stances are couched in a nicely knitted outer wrapping. Some carry machine guns; others wave pistols. Some are radio operators; others are snipers.
All are uncannily animated and dynamic.
The antecedent for “Let’s Play War!” wasn’t just “Locker Room,” Vincent explained while visiting BAM last month, but his series of artworks called “Boy Toys” in which he crocheted objects based on masculine icons: lawn mowers, taxidermy deer heads, free weights.
Fascinated by the “gender roles and gender permissions” that are implicit in the toys that are given to children, Vincent asked himself where these XX-XY stereotypes came from. Were they innate or were they something that was systematically instilled in children?
And what if those toys were to undergo a jump in scale?
Children playing with inch-high plastic soldiers, he notes, are clearly in control. But a child stepping into the midst of “Let’s Play War!” is in the battle itself.
The change in scale may be especially unsettling for parents, Nathan anticipates, when they see a child-sized military figure pointing a gun at their kids.
And that’s his point.
Are these toys really suitable for children’s games, no matter what their scale?
The creepy effect of his installation is enhanced by his meticulous craftsmanship. Taking model plastic soldiers, he digitally scans and scales them up in his computer. Then, using a computer numerical control (CNC) milling process, he sculpts an armature out of EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam.
“It’s very brittle and it’s not very detailed at this point,” he says. Facial structure and other details — hands, arms — are built up using clay and epoxies.
The final step is wrapping the figure in acrylic yarn, either by crocheting the yarn directly onto the armature or taking pre-crocheted garments and applying them to the crude figures.
It’s amazing what vivid and ghostly facial features Vincent can suggest with his yarn-work: a soldier’s hard squint behind the sights of a rifle … even a suggestion of bared teeth.
The figures’ animated energy will be further enhanced as they change position on their “battlefield” over the course of the show. Vincent and the folks at BAM have also made a stop-motion animation film of his figures in action that you can see on BAM’s website.
One last touch: Questionnaires for museum visitors will add an interactive angle to the show. Vincent is eager to see how it strikes visitors of different ages and genders.
“Because they’re so iconic,” he says, “you get to bring to the table all of the things that you know about these toys.”
For better or worse, you might say, these toys are us.