In the two weeks before his latest show at Sutton Gallery, sculptor Toby Pola has taken time off from his day job as an art handler at the NGV for some final sculpting before his show opens on Thursday night.
For an artist producing work mostly after hours, Pola has had an impressive number of shows. After finishing his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1993, Pola didn’t make any sculptural work for many years. But in 2012 he exhibited in group shows at spaces around Melbourne including at West Space, Death Be Kind and TCB Art Inc. Later that year he had a solo show of wood-cut pieces at West Space titled life sux then you die, followed by a show at Utopian Slumps, No Deposit No Return. With recurrent themes of suburban folklore, tragedy and failure running through his work, in 2013 Pola showed a series of carved jumpers and dresses called Drop Out at Craft Victoria, and expanded on that exhibition with Loose Nut in Hobart’s Bett Gallery.
In his latest show at Sutton Gallery, We Out Number You, Pola presents a playful collection of wood-carved sculptures of oversized toy figurines, an idea that’s been at the back of the artist’s mind for years, he says. “It’s about collections and how teenagers collect,” says Pola as he swivels on a chair in his city studio three floors up in the Forum building, a space he shares with fellow artist Tim McMonagle. “All of my works come from teenage memories and nostalgia,” he adds, a hand-carved band T-shirt for an upcoming show hanging on the wall behind him.
“I suppose I am influenced by collections at the NGV where I have worked for so long. I’ve packed up its collections to move, so I’m always conscious of how institutions collect, and I think teenagers and their collections are just as valid … only it’s just a bit cheaper,” he quips.
Pola remembers his own collections as a teenager, housed in an Airwalks box where he used to keep skateboard memorabilia, flyers, Sunny Boy cartons, a cast from when he broke his arm and drum sticks he caught at a Fugazi concert.
We Out Number You is a series of seven hand-cut wooden sculptures in jelutong wood. It’s a natural medium that’s slightly at odds with the cheap, artificial veneers associated with what’s on display; a bruised and faded Mickey Mouse standing on a cupcake (You and Me With the Devil), a forlorn King Kong (Everyone Knows You’re Crying) – “Because he lost his girl” – says Pola, a black sheep (Out of Step, which references an album cover by hardcore punk band Minor Threat) and a mutated Siamese soft-serve ice-cream painted with gauche (They Were Together But Only For a Short Time). “That is about a friend of mine who went out with a girl and it only lasted a couple of weeks, so it shows them together, but things slowly melt and fall apart.”
It’s a week out from the show when we meet and all seven works are complete. Pola has just to finish up a table for the works to stand on in the centre of the gallery. “I’m pretty organised,” he says earnestly. “I think all the forward-planning at the NGV has rubbed off on me.”
We Outnumber You by Toby Pola opens at Sutton Gallery on Thursday July 3, 6pm–8pm. The exhibition runs from July 4–26. Gallery open Fri & Sat 1pm–5pm.