Stephanie Bridges of Westminster is 22 years old and wearing high-heeled black boots, a short black skirt and a diamond stud in her nose. Her companion, Kalena Monte, 21, of Cypress, sports a diamond in the same location but pairs hers with a sweatshirt, athletic shoes and jeans.
Either fashion statement fits in just fine at the Takashi Murakami retrospective currently setting attendance records at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. Museum officials say it's drawing MOCA's most diverse crowd to date.
"In the museum world, there's this kind of mythical beast called the first-time visitor, and you can tell that there are a lot of first-time visitors," says the show's curator, Paul Schimmel. "They are not as used to doing things a certain way."
That informality, Schimmel notes, has led Geffen security guards to be exceptionally vigilant, because many visitors seem to bring young children to the show, and kids tend to want to climb onto sculpture platforms to embrace Murakami's fanciful characters they way they would a wandering Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.
Although the 2002 Andy Warhol retrospective at MOCA's main location on South Grand Avenue is expected to remain the museum's most popular show, director Jeremy Strick predicts that the show of work by the contemporary Japanese artist, which opened Oct. 27 and runs through Feb. 11, will reign as the best-attended exhibition ever at the Geffen space.
With more than 15,000 visitors during its opening weekend and first-week events, Murakami has already broken the Geffen record previously held by the 2005 exhibition "Ecstasy: In and About Altered States," which drew about 6,000 visitors for the same time period.
The most up-to-date attendance total, through Monday (the museum is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays), is 41,654 visitors. Predictably, the Geffen was packed during the weekend after Thanksgiving. On Nov. 24 and 25 more than 3,500 visitors saw the exhibition, which includes a new animated film, "kaikai & kiki," and "Good Morning," a Murakami-designed video for music by Kanye West.
"Yeah, his collabo with Kanye is pretty sweet," observed visitor Monte, who along with Bridges came to the exhibition for an Asian art class at Chapman University in Orange -- the assignment was to compare pop culture influences in Murakami's art with those apparent in Warhol's work.
Not the usual crowd
So who is drawn to the colorful display of the 45-year-old multimedia artist -- progenitor of the art movement called Superflat, heavily influenced by pop culture, anime and graphic design?
Although no official demographic breakdown is available, a visit to the Geffen on Sunday backed up the anecdotal notion that this crowd is young, diverse and relatively free of preconceptions about what the museum experience should be.
That was evident in an apparently general acceptance of what was, at least to art writers and critics, a controversial aspect of the show when it was first announced: Included in the exhibition is a fully operational Luis Vuitton boutique selling high-end, limited-edition handbags and other leather goods featuring Murakami designs.
Said Bridges with a shrug, "This is not a conservative exhibit. It's not like classic antiquity -- this is contemporary Pop art. You go there to see it and buy it. It's not like, 'Oooh, Leonardo da Vinci made that, better not touch it.' "
The extended Chang family of Los Angeles showed up specifically to shop the boutique, dropping $950 for a handbag and about $275 for a key chain.
"My cousin was here and she got the bag, and my mom really liked the bag," said Jennifer Chang, 35, attending the show with husband Richard, parents Gene and Margaret, and 20-month-old daughter Ella. "I was really surprised, I didn't know that the bags were being sold inside the museum, I thought they would be in the gift shop."
But "it's OK, I guess," she said. "I think it makes it a little more accessible. When you think of a museum, you think of it as being kind of stuffy. This opens it up a little."
Murakami is noted for deliberately blurring the boundaries between art and commerce with designs for mass-market pieces sold through his Kaikai Kiki company. Some of those small pieces are on display in one room in the exhibition; others are on sale in the gift shop.
It seemed appropriate that Marvin Lyles, 19, of Central Los Angeles, checking out the exhibition for his color theory class at L.A.'s California Design College, was examining the smaller items through glasses whose lenses were prominently embossed with the D&G logo of designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana.
"He's trying to tie it together, put both worlds together," Lyles said. "He crosses all boundaries. I think he's reaching out to all generations. I see people older, younger, my age -- they all come out."
Kid-friendly, sort of