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December 20, 2007|PAUL YOUNG

I'll never forget the first toy artwork I received as a gift. A former girlfriend bestowed it after returning from New York -- a pair of acrylic tears by Joe Scanlan, which you can apply to your face like a special effect. I like Scanlan as an artist, but getting tears on Christmas was . . . well . . . did I say she was a former girlfriend?

"Toys are more complex than most people give them credit for," says Maria Kwong, curator of "Beyond Ultraman" at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. "They touch on . . . complicated issues concerning sociology, psychology, gender issues and more."

They're also the hottest trend in street culture, thanks to the proliferation of customized manufacturing. That's made it easier for a number of young West Coast artists such as Tim Biskup and David Horvath to produce small vinyl curios at a head-spinning rate.

"But it's definitely a guy's world," says Kwong, which means you can expect an array of twisted and sinister visions, including fantastical beasts and psychotic gang-bangers.

Yet for Giant Robot's Eric Nakamura -- who, aside from being among the first to bring such toys to L.A., has his own art show at the Japanese American National Museum -- the trend is also constructive. "It's now a common language," he says. "So in that sense it's erasing cultural and national borders."

-- theguide@latimes.com

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