When Philo Northrup was 9 or 10, his older brother locked a set of keys in the car. Northrup decided to commemorate the blunder with a handmade trophy. He took the head of a male action figure, put dark glasses on its face, cotton in its ears, and electrical tape across its mouth. He affixed two dangling, metal keys, deemed his creation “the Tommy Award,” and presented it to his brother.
“You know, Tommy, The Who opera,” Northrup said.
Decades later, he’s still gluing toys together—and the toys still have agendas. To feed his long-running “Color Stories” series, Northrup collects plastic action figures, animals, and assorted tchotchkes, organizes them by color, and clusters them into tabletop-sized tableaus of strange bedfellows, frozen in time.
Northrup doesn’t just mix his metaphors. He straight-up dizzies them, squeezing heroes, villains and nonsensical beings of different scales, from different decades, into incongruous dramas, pressing ordinary items like a cooking pot or a wicker basket into service as a tiny theatrical stage.
At first glance, a given assortment of Color Story sculptures (There are hundreds.) is a lighthearted celebration of lowbrow kitsch—to my eye, a deeply satisfying one. It reads like a postcard to a fellow Gen Xer from the post-postmodern irony that flowed through my veins in lieu of blood for most of the 90s. And Northrup’s creations can teleport from ironic to deadpan to slapstick in an instant. A Bart Simpson head stuffed into the cranial cavity of a broken, golden Buddha hit me smack in the vintage funny bone—with that “skewering one-liner” style we were all supposed to disavow in art school, but I never did.
Toys are loaded with symbolism to begin with, full of cues about social values, gender roles, and all the complex morality of superhero backstories. By the time they’ve been purchased, played with, discarded, thrift-shopped, sorted by Northrup into heavy duty bins, and reassembled into sculptures, they’re time-warped, context-addled, frozen little beings with split personalities.
“These figures, these toys … they’re competing for space or status or something,” Northrup said. “And they’re doing things that the toy designer never intended to do. They’re interacting in a way that is beyond their design.”
This is where things get wonderfully weird. A maniacal, plastic Joker with pea-soup-colored hair rubs his puffy, monochromatic hands together. That’s good and creepy in itself. But add in the cute, plastic lavender skunk wedged by his side—her brushable mane says “nursery,” while her smoky eye-makeup and maxed-out pupils say “nightclub”—and now there are power dynamics bubbling up all over the place. “Wait,” you may think. “Am I supposed to be viewing this all with a prurient mind?” You be the judge.
A princess who I think is Cinderella and a princess I don’t know are either dancing the twist, whispering escape plans to each other, or both. A pointy-eared demon holding a palm-sized jack-o-lantern like it’s a stress ball rises in victory (or rage?) (or villainous lust?) above a supine, plastic Bettie Page lookalike. OK, so the prurience is justified, probably. It’s also made deliciously ridiculous by the venue this scene takes place in—an asparagus-themed cup from the paint-your-own-porcelain place, circa 1978.
I suspect that Northrup so enjoyed skewering his brother with the Tommy Award that versions of this exchange eventually became his life’s work. I think he is skewering all of American pop culture—and all of us who consume it—with a lifelong production line of Tommy Awards.
Philo Northrup, who lives in Reno, had two California exhibitions in November, one at Art Haus Gallery in Los Gatos, one at La Matadora Gallery in Joshua Tree. You can see more of his Color Stories, other assemblages and art cars on his website.
This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.