An influential player in the Abstract Expressionist movement, Chamberlain’s radical method, using recycled material in sculpture, allowed him to work with the spontaneity of a true Expressionist as he rendered the improvisational speed of painting in his abstract metal sculpture. When he acquired the contents and scraps from an abandoned Tonka Toy factory in 1981, Chamberlain began a series of sculptures constructed from disassembled and repurposed toy trucks and cars, which he bought en masse. The works in the series are now known as Tonks. Unlike much of his later work, which tended to be very large, these sculptures were much more intimate. Given their smaller size, the Tonk works carry the same monumental force, weight, and density characteristic of Chamberlain’s work and, in fact, even seem to concentrate this sense of force. The rigidity of the metal offers a sense of stability, while the light-heartedness behind the Tonk series and abstract nature of his sculpture provides a radiating sense of energy and spontaneity. This element of speed was previously nonexistent with the slow and deliberate methods of traditional sculpture. Chamberlain’s use of metal to create colorful, abstract designs emphasizes the broad range of his process and creativity.
The son of a saloon keeper, born and raised in the Midwest, Chamberlain imparts a very whimsical, almost vintage Americana quality on Tonk #7-84. Still, the element of whimsy in no way diminishes the brazen, metallic power of the work that gives Chamberlain his renown. Chamberlain’s raw emotion is channeled and interpreted in Tonk #7-84, as he harnesses energy to bend, twist, and torque the metal. The medium, scraps of toy trucks and cars, harkens back to a bygone, childlike era. Chipping paint in rustic red, sky blue, and modeled white evoke an idea of patriotism and the American dream. The result is a vibrant tri-color composition, infused with the tension and vigor of contrasting hues and the deep cavernous shadows inherent in his work.