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Hello, creepy cutie

MOCA's Takashi Murakami retrospective takes aim at cultural commerce gone crazy.

October 29, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

BASED on his work from the past dozen years, you might expect Takashi Murakami to be the illegitimate love child of Tinky Winky and Minnie Mouse, as home-schooled in Amida Buddhism. Or maybe the test-tube spawn of E.T. and Little Annie Fanny, given to unexpected scholarly interest in the erudite traditions of Japanese screens and scrolls.

He's neither, of course. But Murakami's art jumbles manga with Nihonga -- postwar Japanese comic books and prewar paintings that synthesize a dense array of traditional Japanese techniques and motifs. His sprawling mid-career survey, opening today at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, is awash in sculptural androids, CinemaScope paintings, ethereal video animations and lavish merchandise.

Certainly it's fitting that the Tokyo-based artist, 45, is having his retrospective in a Little Tokyo museum. A psychologically conflicted relationship between East and West, especially Japanese and American culture, is pivotal to both manga and Nihonga. It's the tuning fork that sets the constant pitch for Murakami's art.

Take "Miss ko2." This sleekly painted fiberglass figure is the Jetsons' version of a pleasure-house geisha, by way of Hooters restaurant. It may be one of the creepiest artist's dolls since German Surrealist Hans Bellmer lovingly cobbled together some flax fiber, plaster, wooden ball joints and glue in 1934, so he could take dirty photographs. (The creepiest of all is Charles Ray's big mama fashion mannequin, "Fall '91," which may have directly inspired Murakami.)

The Playboy Bunny-like waitress, dressed in a miniskirt and cherry red high heels, holds out a welcoming hand at the show's entrance. She's here to serve paying customers a giant pair of pneumatic breasts, impossibly extruded limbs and an adolescent aura of wide-eyed innocence, all tied up in a bow atop cascading blond tresses.

Did I mention that "Miss ko2" is also larger than life? Like Ray's Vogue magazine dominatrix sculpture, Murakami's stands 8 feet tall. Male Surrealists like Bellmer idealized the child-woman as a fantasy muse, capable of dismantling rational forces. But not Murakami. His art appears resigned to global culture's truly monumental irrationality.

Nihonga, which he studied from 1986 to 1993 as a university doctoral candidate, was a stiff reaction against Western influence on hitherto cloistered Japan. It emerged at the Modern era's start, fusing sometimes-contradictory traditions and techniques in an improbable quest to assert the "Japanese-ness" of Japanese art.

Manga, by contrast, was partly fueled by the lengthy post-1945 U.S. occupation of Japan. Young American G.I.s imported the boisterous artifacts of popular culture by the ton.

These two threads are tightly knotted throughout the show. Ninety-six paintings, sculptures, animations and other works have been assembled, all but six made since 1995. There's also a display of about 500 commercial trinkets -- T-shirts, plush toys, postcards, coffee mugs, paperweights, ad nauseam and absurdum -- produced by his company, Kaikai Kiki Corp.

Fantastic myths and legends find contemporary form in candy-colored works whose forced cheerfulness can, in this colossal quantity, become wearing. Halfway through the show, when I entered a raucously floral-wallpapered room filled with floral paintings bursting with the same smiling flowers and dominated by a topiary sculpture whose flowery tendrils reached 13 feet into the air, my teeth began to hurt.

Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups, it's a bit like eating a whole box of See's candy for lunch.

I suspect, though, that nausea is part of what Murakami is after. The demotic hysteria of commercial culture infects everything now, including once-sober political discourse. It's our global patois.

"Tan Tan Bo Puking -- a.k.a. Gero Tan" is a mural-size, multi-panel painting in flat, bright colors that shows an engorged cartoon monster spewing buckets-full of rainbow pigment through jagged teeth. Tiepolo clouds billow lightly in the azure sky. Like a Japanese Saturn devouring his children, destroying the future in order to protect himself from being supplanted by them, Gero Tan's repulsive feast produces magnificent art.

Murakami has spoken about the kudzu-like proliferation of ultra-cute imagery in Japanese culture -- Hello Kitty, say -- as a colossal index of repressed confidence in the wake of a militaristic nation's humiliating battlefield defeat 62 years ago. Even death now seems infantilized, as in his remarkable paintings of a skeleton whose mushroom-cloud shape is horribly adorable.

The conceptual debt to Andy Warhol, here and everywhere in the show, is obvious. But the squeamishness induced by Murakami's distinctive brand of Pop Art is entirely different.

And I emphasize brand. Murakami is the first major artist, Eastern or Western, to make our pervasive culture of branding a primary subject, rather than simply exploiting it.

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