Nostalgicon Exhibition Tells a Millennial Toy Story

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY AUG 28, 2020

As Toy Story so aptly demonstrated, the lifecycle of toys forms a complex, living web of connections forged in four dimensions. As children, our toys come and go with the seasons, the objects of intense admiration for a couple of years before being discarded and forgotten. But the objects leave an indelible mark on our psyches like the plastic molds used to construct them, and with Nostalgicons, the newest exhibition at Ringling College’s Patricia Thompson Gallery, artist and Ringling alum Ian Dean shows just how much weight is carried by the pocket-sized toys of the 80s and 90s.

Dean is intimately acquainted with the weight of those objects. Of the thousands included in the exhibition’s three installations, most are his. “I’d say about 97 percent of them are mine,” he says, “there are a few things in there I had to find on eBay, but I interacted with most of it in my childhood.” From action figures that came with Happy Meals to cartridges for Nintendo’s original Game Boy, Dean’s propensity for holding onto childhood toys has yielded a remarkable trove of items that reads like an epitaph for a whole generation’s artifacts. One particularly unique find was the mint condition, Styrofoam Big Mac container from the 80s, its tab still intact.

But even if the collection says much about Dean—meticulous, exacting, playful, self-aware—the overarching impression of the exhibition brings into question the way these objects interacted with the world at large. “Some of the stuff is precious to me,” says Dean, “but it’s more about how this incredible amount of stuff comes in and out of our lives.” When seen through this lens, it’s hard not to consider what the installations and printed collages say about consumerism. As Dean writes in his artist statement, “Nostalgia can be a powerful trigger, . . . Nostalgia also sells.” Most of the items were cheaply made to maximize profits for global toy corporations, intended to give temporary joy before ending up in a landfill.

“All of this stuff brings up so many memories for me,” says Tim Jaeger, Chief Curator of Galleries for Ringling College. He points to a Hot Wheels car encased in one of the installations and remembers how he always seemed to find one beneath the driver’s seat of his mother’s car. “There’s just so much meaning in this stuff for me,” he says, “but it’s also just so much stuff when you see it all together; it almost makes me feel guilty.” It seems for Dean, that broad and complex web of emotions is part of what he hoped would inspire conversation and some bittersweet nostalgia.

The exhibition runs through October 2 and is open for viewing by appointment Monday through Friday from 10am to 4pm. Appointments can be made by emailing galleries@ringling.edu.

Ringling College of Art and Design

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