In May of 2012, My Little Pony Project, a traveling exhibition of art based on the famed toy and TV franchise, popped up on Melrose Avenue. With it, came huge crowds and a lot of ponies. Amidst the menagerie inside Toy Art Gallery was Good Night, Sweet Dreams...XO by J*Ryu. Like the other artists in the custom show, J*Ryu started out with a large, blank, My Little Pony figure. His take, though, was unique. He cut apart the pony and rebuilt it to resemble a carousel horse. The piece was sculpted and painted for vintage appeal. The pony itself appeared gray and cracked with age. It's embellishments took the form of years-old metal and a cameo pin. Atop the pony was a spectral girl, who was fastened side-saddle with magnets. The girl, known as Mon Petit La Mort, held a rose in one hand and clung to the carousel pole with the other. From her side dangled an hourglass and a scythe. "She actually the is the rider of the death," says the artist, whose real name is Jesse Yu. The morbid undertones of the piece weren't quite so obvious in a show filled with cute stuff.
The piece sold. J*Ryu, then a relatively unknown name in the custom toy world, gained a bigger following. People contacted Yu to ask if he could make another one. "I look at that piece with a lot of fondness," he says. "I wish I still had it actually."
Good Night, Sweet Dreams...XO became a defining piece for an artist who doesn't do a whole lot of pop culture-inspired works. It also helped introduce L.A. to a talented up-and-comer who, at that point in time, didn't live here.
Yu is a newcomer to the city. He was born and raised in North Carolina, but made the trek out west early in 2013. Now he lives in Torrance with a few other artists, all of whom are members of the collective Army of Snipers. They work out of the same studio. Yu gets to take in a lot of the art that inspires him now that he's in a city where there is a thriving scene. That's a really good opportunity for someone who's still relatively new to the art world.
J*Ryu, the nickname, dates back to Yu's high school days. It references both his initials and a character in the popular video game Street Fighter. J*Ryu, the artist, didn't make his debut until a custom toy show at WonderCon in 2010. Yu spent years working as a designer in the corporate world. "It was a too much for me to handle," he says. "I needed a respite from all of that."
A lifelong toy collector, Yu gravitated towards the designer toy world, particularly custom toys. He made a lot of friend in that world and, eventually, decided to customize a toy himself. Yu says that he would play with Sculpey polymer clay the way other artists used sketchpads. So, he took a blank Munny figure, the customizable line of toys from Kidrobot, added some clay and turned it into a character that he had previously drawn for a comic strip. He didn't show anyone the custom that he made, but he kept working and kept making contacts. That led to shows at conventions like WonderCon and San Diego Comic Con. Since then, he's appeared in a number of events, including recent group shows at Giant Robot 2 and Toy Art Gallery here in Los Angeles.
Yu sees customization artists as similar to cover bands, explaining that where a cover band works with songs that others wrote, he'll work with toys that someone else made. "It's kind of a silent collaboration between myself and whoever it is who designed the shape that's the basis for my artwork," he says. "I can't fully take a lot of credit for everything because someone did take me on a path."
However, Yu isn't just a customizer. He is also a sculptor in his own right. "I have the ability to create from scratch," he says. That lends itself to customizations that stray far from the design of the base toy, as in the case of his My Little Pony contribution. Beyond that, he does work on his own, original sculptures.
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Yu's influences frequently stem from the film world. Ray Harryhausen, Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro rank high on list. He refers to Hayao Miyazaki as his "absolute hero" for his evocative storytelling powers. "I'm a 41-year-old man," Yu says, adding, "I love Kiki's Delivery Service." Save for a rare few shows, though, Yu isn't one to directly reference his influences. He's not much of a fan of overt nods to pop culture. He describes his work as his own "modern, dark fairytale." His pieces are a little creepy, but never quite scary. They might allude to mythology or folklore, but they aren't chained to a specific time or place. The female ghost, who appears frequently in Yu's work, is an example. He sees her as an "avatar" for those who view her, they might be able to step into her shoes and imagine her story. For Yu, who notes that he emphasizes storytelling in his work, that's important.
Yu finished out 2013 by opening up his own online shop and the release of Invicta Duo Custom Android, made in a limited edition of 13. In 2014, Yu plans to focus less on shows and more on production. "Sitting there and doing sculptures is time consuming," says Yu. "At the end of the day, only one person gets to buy it." Of course, creating figures that can be sold over and over again can solve that problem. He's been working a lot on prototypes lately. Some are for other artists, where he will sculpt figures based on their 2D characters. "I've been very lucky, and humbled, that other artists have seen my work and want me to work with them," he says. He also has a few of his own productions in the works.