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Toys are us (and the universe)

Miami’s FriendsWithYou brings its traveling designer toy circus to the Twin Cities.

When you were a kid, you knew – you just knew! – that your toys were more than toys; that their shiny plastic or fur-and-button exteriors were easily transcended. These objects had names, personalities, even alternate worlds (which you swore they revisited once your eyelids fluttered shut).


WHAT: FriendsWithYou Gallery Exhibition (Wish Come True sculpture series)
WHEN: Sept. 28 through Oct. 27
WHERE: Soo Visual Arts Center, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, (612) 871-2263

Sam Borkson and Arturo “Tury” Sandoval, even as two full-grown men and accomplished commercial artists, understand this. As the existential toymakers (yes, you read that right) behind the Miami-based designer toy-cum-avant-conceptual art collective FriendsWithYou, they seek to tightly pack a collection of high-minded metaphysical concepts into ultra-adorable cuddle companions that bridge the gap between model-collecting and gallery-going – and remind even the most “adult” adults that their childhoods were once filled with fluffy flights of fancy.

They seem harmless enough; FriendsWithYou’s bulbous, brightly hued creatures practically beg to be picked up and nuzzled. Still, these “toys” are every bit as much for display as they are for play, and while they are super cute, look closer and you’ll see frowns and fangs on their faces, not to mention accompanying qualities that bode either great wealth or double trouble. These little guys mean some big business. But who older than the age of 9 would have ever thought that plush playthings could serve as an entry level to higher philosophy?

Borkson and Sandoval launched their first line of FriendsWithYou toys in 2002. Since then, thanks to an increasingly worldwide fascination with the rascal charms of their mythical monsters, they’ve carved out their own niche in the contemporary art world by sharing FriendsWithYou’s message of “magic, luck and friendship” through installations, performances, paintings, prints, multimedia projects and published works.

Among the most well known have been the pair of center-stage art spectacles at Art Basel Miami, last year’s of which involved a floating parade of 18 massive blimps down South Beach, each a bloated, weightless reimagining of a FriendsWithYou character. They’ve also parlayed the collective’s popularity into a handful of impressive exhibitions, from the full-scale interactive children’s playgrounds found in Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Aventura Mall to a collection of minimalist sculpture in Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin.

Now, Borkson and Sandoval bring their cult of whimsy on a first-time Midwest visit, squeezing a few of their blimps into the Uptown gallery Soo Visual Art Center. Their visit also includes a lecture at Walker Art Center and a special signing event at ROBOTlove, where the Peter Pan-ish duo unveiled their latest series of toy creations, called “Wish Come True.”

In it, you’ll find Zozo, FriendsWithYou’s doorknob-shaped, candy-striped manifestation of, yes, the universe (or Coco, who, with her confetti-like polka dots and charming red nose, is meant as Zozo’s “female universe” companion). Both suggest that all-phenomenal cosmic powers can exist outside the above and in the crook of your arm if you listen carefully and believe hard enough.

Longstanding main mascot Malfi is a bit of a different story, a plump, bowling ball-black little nuisance who most resembles a beakless penguin. His face comes in two incarnations: either swathed in a thick-lipped, gleeful grin, or as a frowning death mask with Xs for eyes. According to FriendsWithYou, the two identities represent all the opposing positive and negative characteristics that infuse all the beings of the universe.

Heavy stuff, no? It’s that ominous imagery, along with the line’s swirl of rainbow-synthetic materials and an undertone of spiritual rhetoric (the toys are inspired by Japanese anime, ancient Hinduism and all-encompassing pantheism) that gives FriendsWithYou just enough of an eerie cheer. It’s all at once purposely silly and weirdly tutorial, as capable of keeping the work from becoming mere child’s play as it is tumbling head-first into it.

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