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Guest curator Pharrell leaves mark on vinyl art exhibit 'This Is Not A Toy'

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TORONTO - With four recent Grammy wins to his credit and a performance at the Oscars looming, the ever-busy Pharrell Williams has managed to find time to translate his creative talent to visual art with an exhibit launching in Canada.

The Oscar-nominated hitmaker is serving as guest curator of "This Is Not A Toy," which opens at the Design Exchange in Toronto on Friday.

The showcase is being billed as the world's first large-scale exhibition dedicated to urban vinyl as contemporary art. It includes an array of ornately detailed figurines from barely there miniatures to larger freestanding pieces, each offering a novel twist on playthings designed with grownups in mind. In addition to vinyl creations, there are pieces fashioned from plastic, plush and a host of other materials.

Video screens and projections are featured along with the displays, enabling visitors to watch interviews with artists and gain insight into how vinyl toys are created and customized.

The Canadian component of the exhibit features pieces by several contributors, including Castor Design, Sid Lee Collective and designer Jeremy Laing.

The exhibit's name is drawn from the disclaimer found on product packaging for objects intended for use by adults which may be harmful to children — items that may be called toys but aren't meant for play. The moniker also takes inspiration from Rene Magritte's famed 20th-century painting "Ceci N'est Pas Un Pipe" ("This is Not a Pipe"), which showcases an everyday object as a work of art.

"It really plays upon expectations. It plays upon what constitutes art," said John Wee Tom, who co-curated the exhibit with Sara Nickelson.

Designer toys originated in the late 1990s, where artists like Michael Lau — the godfather of urban vinyl — and Hong Kong's Eric So were reimagining pop culture icons like G.I. Joe and Bruce Lee into contemporary works, noted Wee Tom.

"It comes from street culture, it comes from youth, it comes from fashion, hip-hop music and graffiti. And I think because of that very reason it's very, very relevant," he said.

"Being a collector myself, I have an interest in the genre. I thought it would be timely and interesting to do a show like this."

In the case of Williams, who lent his vocals to two of 2013's biggest hits — Robin Thicke's chart-topper "Blurred Lines" and electronic duo Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" — the exhibit offers a public platform for the musician's artistic tastes and personal works.

"Pharrell's involvement is really due to the fact that he's so passionate about the genre and explains that urban vinyl and collectible design is what brought him into the world of contemporary art," said Design Exchange president Shauna Levy.

A shimmering centrepiece is "The Simple Things," a collaboration between Williams, acclaimed Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and Jacob the Jeweler. It features miniature jewel-encrusted goodies, including a ketchup bottle, cupcake and bag of chips — some of the musician's personal favourite things — nestled inside the oversized head of a colourful, cartoon-like character.

Wee Tom said Williams was instrumental in the development of the exhibition, facilitating introductions to many of the artists whose works are featured including Murakami and Brian Donelly — better known as KAWS — whose creations mesh elements of illustration and pop iconography.

Two of Williams's personal paintings created by KAWS — interpretations of popular cartoon characters SpongeBob SquarePants and the Smurfs — are part of the exhibit. The works of other notables, including artist and toy maker Huck Gee, graphic artist Frank Kozik and retailer and toy producer Kidrobot, are also featured.

Visitors will find plenty of nods to pop culture staples, from figurines of the Beatles and Daft Punk, to whimsical interpretations of iconic characters like Mickey Mouse.

"The beauty of urban vinyl and design in toys is you really don't need any background or familiarity with art at all," said Wee Tom.

"Because (they are) such familiar shapes, but with a difference, with a twist, they're highly accessible. They're immediately appealing. But when you look at them longer and consider them longer, you see that they're concepts that go beyond their surface beauty."

"This Is Not A Toy" is on display until May 18.

Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

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