It’s one of the glories of childhood: the sprawl of toys that builds up over time, a bright reef of plastic figures, minature props, gamepieces, vehicles and heaven knows what else. If left to its own devices, the reef can take over whole swaths of territory, becoming a multi-strata rainbow of half-forgotten playthings.
Enter FOE Shop and Gallery, tucked away above Northampton’s Main Street, and a much more orderly version of that reef spreads above you, on a shelf just below the ceiling. The toys on that FOE shelf are all figures of various sorts, and run from the cutely monstrous to the mechanically militaristic. This is the resting place of many of owner Jim Shea’s personal acquisitions.
Shea and his wife Nicole moved back to the Valley after living in Baltimore, and their shop is a nexus of a very particular brand of art and collecting. Like any collectors, the folks who love the FOE brand of specialty know the rarefied particulars of a singular world. Shea explains that part of what they do is defined by Japanese terms: kaiju and kawaii. The first means something along the lines of “beast” or “monster”; the second means “cute.” At FOE, you’ll find both of those, with more emphasis on the monstrous.
What intrigues particularly, though, is the combination, the cutely monstrous. Among the requisite Godzillas, robots and mechanized war machines, you’ll also find strange little beasts that are, at first blush, fairly cute. Look closer, and you’ll often find something decidedly uncute, something like bloody teeth or, say, a spiky, ridged back. Something about the combo seems like a particularly good fit for Japanese creations, and it’s also a distillation of the aesthetic on view at FOE. It is, more than anything, playful. More than one monster on the shelves might well prove capable of gnawing its victims to a pulp, but those victims might die laughing at the awkward limbs, extraneous horns or disproportionate parts. Anyone can pick a few monstrous cliches and mash them together for a scary creature, but crafting these wobbly monsters seems like an endeavor requiring a more audacious eye.
Right now, the FOE gallery—the raised front section of the space—holds Rise of the Robots!, a show heavy on local and New England talent, but which also features the work of one Japanese artist (Ryuji Oguni). The local contingent includes Rick Beaupre (who won Best Artist in last year’s Advocate Best of) and Luke Cavagnac, among others.
Robots of all sorts fill the walls and shelves, and a sense of whimsy fills the space. Some of the artworks are beautifully rendered with a fine art sensibility: mid-century-esque movie posters by James Biggie, for instance, and a particularly painterly robot and bird scene by Marianne Plumridge. Others seem more like escapees from some Japanese cousin of steampunk, like the vacuum tube-laden monsters of Boston artist Todd Robertson (whose work is pictured). It’s as if the mechanized creations on display came together from some massive parts bin, their appendages and sensory apparatus matched up only by the personal visions of their creators.
Shea explains that, in some cases, that’s exactly what happened. Robertson shares a studio, Shea says, with artist Will Long, whose work comes from putting together discarded plastic model parts. That kind of approach is also apparent in the work of Adam Mulcahy, whose creations are assembled from all sorts of metal parts which previously served quite different functions.
Shea says the FOE, which has plied its trade in Northampton since 2011, does plenty of online business. The kaiju and kawaii toy world, he explains, is a major phenomenon in California, and FOE is the sole outpost for these artists on the East Coast. Like Shea’s gallery neighbor Richard Michelson, FOE exhibits sometimes bring collectors and fans from far afield; what is a hard-to-spot, unassuming shop on Main Street is something of a nexus in the kind of collecting and fandom subworld that, thanks to the Internet, connects people all over the world, united only in their love of a highly specfic aesthetic. FOE, like a lot of other inconspicuous undertakings, is a decidedly non-monstrous manifestation of a new, electronically fueled universe.•