by Manu SharmaJan 30, 2023
The American artist Eric von Stein creates surreal, artificial intelligence-generated visions that present a world of vintage ephemera, nearly indistinguishable from old toys and carnival and television set pieces. As a co-owner of a toy and craft company, Von Stein is well acquainted with his subject matter, and creates his AI art under the name Waxy Fruits, which he describes as a project meant to “keep dormant memories of the past alive.” While the artist does not find his work to be disturbing in the slightest, he has nevertheless received feedback from his audiences telling him that his characters possess a frightening edge. This is likely a result of the sheer eeriness of Von Stein’s work, which he acknowledges, telling STIR: “Uncanniness is probably the hallmark of our current moment in AI technology, and the plush beings that I have generated certainly have that perceptual uncertainty. An image only excites me if it feels convincingly real and vintage. It has to trick the brain into sparking memories.”
The level of detail within Von Stein’s pieces speaks to a deep relationship between the artist and his subjects. “As a child, I was very connected to animals. I also had a sort of blurred empathy for my stuffed toys,” he says. “They all had to be treated fairly and they all had to receive equal attention from me. I didn’t like to tear things apart and make a mess. I wanted to sew and create fun worlds that were alive. With Waxy Fruits, I want to conjure those worlds again, framing them in liminal or dreamlike compositions with a dose of nostalgia.”
While Waxy Fruits is primarily an AI-driven project, this is by no means an indication of Von Stein’s blind endorsement of the technology that he works with. Much to the contrary, the artist is highly critical of the perpetual push towards increasingly sophisticated AI solutions. "I find slick representations to be pretty impotent; most AI is slick, and our eyes are already numb to a lot of it," he mentions. He explains that AI image generators are speeding towards a sort of intricately rendered complexity and hyper-stylisation, which forces him to grapple with these programs in order to produce results that are simple, texturally rich, and emotionally evocative, rather than overly stylised imagery that feels hollow.
As Von Stein sees it, the hyper-real, lifelike renders, and science fiction aesthetics that seem to dominate social media platforms right now are a justifiable preference for technology developers who have close ties to video game and industrial design studios, and rawer, imperfect solutions may no longer possess any particular relevance in these spaces. “But,” he adds, “if you can just type three words, and get the most highly rendered fantasy, or simply mimic the style of another artist, then you have effectively been taken out of your own imagination. You have lost the experience of cooperation between yourself and the machine, which is crucial if we are to retain a sense of autonomy in this moment of unprecedented technological advancements.”
The artist’s preferred AI image generators are older versions of Midjourney, which produce simpler forms and, as Von Stein tells STIR, “nail the vibe of vintage aesthetics.” He is interested not in pursuing hyper-realistic perfection, but rather in replicating the harsh lighting of old studio photography and the feel of old fabrics. "The miraculous thing is that AI can interpret a prompt like ‘cheap plush toy’, giving the form details reminiscent of mass-manufactured items like plastic googly eyes, visible stitches, and little bits of felt detailing,” he says. Once Von Stein’s experiments produce results that he deems to be workable, the artist remixes the images into newer versions of Midjourney for their improved object cohesion, before bringing them into more traditional digital workspaces where he combines the most evocative sections of multiple images.
AI art production has not been all smooth sailing for Von Stein: during the early days of the Waxy Fruits project, he ran into his fair share of teething troubles as he tried reworking images of his own plush toys, which produced results he describes as “ghastly”. The artist tells STIR, "The programs interpreted my creations as killer clowns and horror movie-type dolls, which ruined their magic and made them one-dimensional. I hated the results.”
Prior to his professional work as a toy and craft designer, Von Stein was absorbed in creating vintage-inspired dolls and soft toy characters. This was the beginning of his efforts to synthesise the ephemeral nature of memory into tactile, and now digital, outputs. “I wanted my creations to embody emotion and nostalgic wonder through their fabrication and expression,” he explains. “As it was a time before social media, I was working out a lot of these ideas privately, in my room. I didn’t know how to bring them to a larger audience.” Now, however, he looks back to this time fondly, regarding it as a period of incubation for his current projects in the digital era, along with being an important stepping stone to a career in the toy industry.
Even though the Waxy Fruits project is less than a year old, Von Stein has already created some ripples with his work: some of his pieces were included in an exhibit called Soft Touch (2023) at the Museum of Museums in Seattle, which explored how the works “interweave themes of identity, humanity, and natural ecosystems,” according to its website. Von Stein says he feels honoured to have his art in curated spaces and is also happy to have recently collaborated with the French artist Lucas Beaufort, who produces work in a similar vein. “Beaufort painted his Gus Gus character and patterns over my prints, in dialogue with the images. I loved his approach and I think our styles meshed well.”
The artist is very enthusiastic about his budding artmaking career, which had taken a secondary position behind his toy-making work. He is looking forward to another collaboration on the horizon—this time with a friend who is creating a line of child and adult fashion accessories—and he also has plans to create film and music videos.