New York

James White and Tim Sheward

Just do it. That’s what Nike says. James White and Tim Sheward—former assistants to another British art duo, Gilbert & George—heard, and were moved to create a sweet little homage to that ongoing Brit obsession, the trainer (known stateside as athletic shoes). Dubbed “Plastic Picnic,” the piece consists of twelve lifesize polyurethane foam bendy figures, anthropomorphic versions of Gumby, on a platform about the same size and shape as a boxing ring; in keeping with the cheapo childhood-toy theme, the figures tend to be kind of ragged around the edges, as if the molds didn’t quite match up. Decked out in the latest leisure wear, which is painted directly onto their posable bodies, they writhe around on crash mats, their squishy torsos and feet emblazoned with logos from Nike, Reebok, and Adidas (this last is kind of a retro look, Adidas being Old School gear); the overall effect is not unlike a frozen moment from an exceptionally large game of Twister. The action figures are gendered, of course, with females distinguished from males by the addition of two half-sphere-shaped breasts. Otherwise, everybody at the picnic looks pretty much the same, differentiated from one another primarily by brand loyalty.

This work is either social commentary or not, depending. On the one hand, it could be a meditation on the sadistic implications of Just Do It, and similarly didactic, ’80s-style athletic-ad campaigns (in the nicer ’90s, the ads have mostly moved away from the “no pain, no gain” paradigm). After all, few things incorporate the drive toward sameness the way workout culture does: if you do it enough, you’ll look just like one of four or five physical types. And certainly, few things combine pain, boredom, and sexuality in the way a workout does. On the other hand, it seems equally likely that Plastic Picnic, 1997, is a bit more lightweight than that, constituting a kind of sweetly bent nostalgia-trip back to the days when your sexuality expressed itself pretty much exclusively via Twister, and whatever it was you thought your toys got up to when you weren’t around. Sameness and interchangeability, if you will recall, were pretty important then, too—vitally important to have the same body, toys, clothes (Levi’s vs. Wrangler, Nike vs. Adidas, and on and on) as everybody else. In that sense, Plastic Picnic represents a kind of dream come true: a) it’s made up of the biggest bendy figures on the block, the kind you always wanted to have; and b) everyone in it has achieved the kind of basic sameness and faithfulness to type the rest of us could only dream about. The back-to-school theory is given a hit more weight by the inclusion of a series of obsessively detailed cutaway drawings of cars; called “In God We Rust,” they’re dead ringers for the sketches every boy worth his salt did when he was supposed to be paying attention in class. A photograph from 1995 called “Getaway Girl” enshrines the other obsession of young males—it’s a picture of a bikini-clad babe perched on a mound of similar babe photos. She, like the other pinup cuties, has an excellent late-’60s hairdo.

It’s kind of charming to see someone reduce the whole ugly mishmash of childhood anxiety into something that really looks like child’s play. You’re not any less screwed at the Plastic Picnic than you are elsewhere—everybody there is still at the mercy of the Just Do It edict, wearing the clothes, striking the poses, going through the motions. But they’re action figures—springy, resilient, yielding, yet firm; they’ve already achieved the sublime body you could only dream about. And without doing a single sit-up!

Mark Van de Walle