Sculptor Ajax Axe toying with viewers in ‘Playtime’ at Gonzo Gallery |

Sculptor Ajax Axe toying with viewers in ‘Playtime’ at Gonzo Gallery

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times


What: Ajax Axe, ‘Playtime’

Where: Gonzo Gallery

When: Opening Saturday Aug. 1, 6-10 p.m.; exhibition on view through Aug. 18

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After spending the past year-and-a-half playing with toy soldiers, toy guns, G.I. Joes and Rock ‘Em Sock Em Robots, the artist Ajax Axe is still wondering why kids playthings have to be so violent.

The Aspen-based artist is unveiling a subversive new group of 20 sculptures playing with the idea and challenging the view with new objects made from toy war material.

There’s a Tonka truck-based piece titled “Patriarchy: The Team’s All Here” and assemblages of lead soldiers, punching robots, some “Star Wars,” some G.I. Joe and countless variations of guns for kids.

“The inherent messaging in toys is so powerful because it’s about the values and symbols we are giving to children,” Axe said this week. “I got into this idea of reimagining some of these toys in a way that exposes the underlying meaning or manipulates their meaning to show some other facet of the hidden agenda behind a lot of these toys. “

She worked with toys from the 1960s and ’70s because they are completely tactile and predate video games. Though, she noted, the spirit and values of these toys is unchanged in the often hyper-violent video games of the 21st century.

“Sexuality is still taboo, nudity is still taboo for children and violence is still totally acceptable,” she said. “It’s a fascinating thing and it is sincerely troubling.”

The materials came from antique stores, thrift stores, from niche online communities and vintage toy collectors. Once Axe heard a certain toy had existed — a toy camera with a hidden gun, for instance — she could always track it down online.

It continues the artist’s interest in using narrative and viewer interaction in her work and her always unpredictable way with sculpture and assemblage. Local viewers may remember her previous Gonzo Gallery shows like “The Palace of the Beast” in 2018, for which she created massive creatures that came with magical spells and rituals to perform with the artwork, or “The Cult of Phi” in 2016, which through sculpture told of an enlightened post-apocalyptic society.

Axe, who works in an off-the-grid studio on the backside of Aspen Mountain, has been entrenched in this new toy-based body of work for the past 18 months or so. She had not planned to show in Aspen this summer, but when the COVID-19 interrupted her international plans — work with refugees in Greece this summer, an exhibition on Kenya this December — she found a forum in the new location of the Gonzo Gallery, an itinerant institution that’s frequently showcased Axe’s work. She also opened a show with Skye Gallery — a previous body of work — last month though the Intersect Aspen online art fair.

The new Gonzo space, at the corner of Hyman Avenue and Hunter Street, is primed for showing sculpture in the age of social distancing — its story-high windows and jewel-box design allowing a view of the work inside.

The show will open Saturday evening, with a socially distanced evening reception themed to fit the spirit of the show. On the street in front of the gallery on Hyman — blocked off with hay bales — Axe will host a “pandemic pool party,” where visitors can sit on pool toys while masked and distanced.

“The pool floatie is the ultimate symbol of excessive late-stage capitalism — it’s made in China, it’s cheap, you throw it in the pool and it pops and you just throw all this plastic away and get another,” she noted.

Axe also has buried one of her sculptures in an undisclosed location. Visitors to the gallery can get a clue as to where to find it. And, Axe said, if the pandemic leads to another shutdown of public life in Aspen, she will post clues on the internet — opening up the search to whomever is interested in looking. As she put it: “If we have another lockdown, well, who doesn’t like a good treasure hunt?”