Designer toy artist debuts nostalgic, yet hopeful solo exhibition

by HAZATUL SYIMA HARON / Pics source: oodplex & ZHAN Art | Space

GOING by its name BLEAK, visitors to oodplex’s first solo exhibition might be forgiven for thinking the works on show would be totally gloomy and depressing. Yet, the collection of artworks to sculptures actually aims to spark hope and trigger a sense of nostalgia, as it showcases how designer toys are turned into a true art form in Malaysia.

Lee Ren Chang, professionally known as oodplex, said BLEAK is a compilation of several ideas, but revolves around the feeling of isolation. 

“The feeling is particularly fuelled by the old memories of my student days in the UK, but also the isolation feeling during the pandemic lockdowns. During these times, my feelings were particularly documented through my characters and the exhibition is an invitation for others to reflect on trying times, but also a glimpse of hope that things will get better.”

Melting Ben represents the artist burning out in a bid to shine and do well in the world

Titular Character

His debut solo exhibition features BEN as the titular character in various forms including life-sized sculptures, digital forms and artworks. 

“Ben is a semi-autobiographical character based on myself; he embodies my feelings and emotions and was created while I was studying in the UK. The feeling of being alone and isolation was the sole reason why Ben was created, but the character provided warmth and hope that things will get better in time,” he told The Malaysian Reserve.

To date, oodplex has created two versions of Ben: Melting Ben, which represents the artist burning out in a bid to shine and do well in the world; and Split Ben, which is how he views himself as having to create multiple layers of personalities to fit into the norms of society.

Shortly after completing the group show My Toys 2.0 Exposure hosted by Titik Merah in July 2020, oodplex felt the need to showcase his own toy exhibition. In that exhibition, it was only a small showcase of the Melting Ben and he wanted to showcase a much bigger scale of works.

“I’ve always aspired to have my own toy exhibition,” he said.

Thus, BLEAK — his debut solo exhibition at ZHAN Art | Space — came into fruition. Located in the heart of Petaling Jaya at The School, Jaya One, ZHAN Art | Space offers 2,000 sq ft space dedicated to showcasing contemporary fine art from Malaysia and abroad.

Oodplex said he is hoping to expand the series for Split Ben, as he has yet to fully explore the character’s potential and stories. 

“I would also love to explore doing more sculptural works and perhaps focus on designing several more versions of Ben.”

The works are for sale from RM150 to RM25,000 and can be viewed at ZHAN Art | Space

Toys in Contemporary Art Market

The practice of artists incorporating toys into their portfolio of works has exploded in recent years, penetrating the contemporary art market and highlighted by the media for selling for millions at major auctions.

Thanks to celebrated artists such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, KAWS (Brian Donnelly) and Yayoi Kusama, these works are blurring the distinction between toys, collectibles and art.

While pursuing his studies in Bristol England, oodplex first took notice of New Zealand-based toy artist Yoii who was a prodigious talent and fast establishing herself within the designer toy community. Having being inspired by her works, oodplex soon debut Raiki, a deer-like creature at Malaysia’s AniManGaki back in 2017, which was later exhibited at the Glitch Gallery in Bristol in 2018. 

However, most critics have decried the interpretation of toys in the contemporary art market, especially KAWS who draws upon global icons to create his controversial artwork. Despite earning millions with brand collaborations including names like Dior and Nike, and sell-out crowds at his exhibition, KAWS is seen as an enfant terrible of the contemporary art world. 

Commenting on this, oodplex said KAWS is one of the most iconic artists in the modern art world and like many others, the Malaysia-based designer toy artist looks up to him for inspiration. 

“Even though he has received a lot of criticism for the alleged lack of ‘originality’ or for constantly repurposing his artwork into different colours and sizes, there is no doubt that he paved the road for designer toy artists to be taken in the contemporary art market,” said oodplex.

The exhibition is an invitation for others to reflect on trying times, but also a glimpse of hope that things will get better

‘Arts Should Be Freeing’

He emphasised that there will always be critics in the art world that disagree with the works you put out, but art should be freeing and creativity has no limits. 

“I hope that my viewers resonate with my works and do not see my works as gimmicks, but a form of self-expression in the form of toys.”

To that, one can only say critics can continue to question the distinct differences between the true meaning of art and toys, but it is up to the viewers and artists to decide. Art, after all, has no boundaries and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

ZHAN Art | Space founder Tong, for one, believes in the self-expression of an artist, regardless of whether in the form of art or toys and should be expressed equally. 

BLEAK runs from May 13 to 12 June 2022, comprising paintings, sculptures and digital works. The works are for sale from RM150 to RM25,000 and can be viewed at ZHAN Art | Space. 

Co-founded by siblings Desmond Tong and Dr Ginny Tong in December 2018, the art space has hosted 22 art exhibitions as of January 2022 and curated art works with more than 80 artists. Exhibitions include Isa Ishak’s first solo exhibition “Kisah Isa Ishak”, London-based Unamed Collective’s “Illegitimate” group show and others.