"Superflat," Jan. 14-May 27, 2001, at MoCA Gallery at the Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood, Ca.
It is a 90-minute subway ride from Tokyo to Saitama, where artist Takashi Murakami maintains his studio, Hiropon Factory, a series of quonset huts in the middle of a bamboo field. Murakami, 38, comes out to offer warm greetings, his round face accentuated by round glasses, wearing the goatee and many-pocketed sports clothing favored by film directors. After requesting the removal of shoes, he ushers his visitor into the tidy building.
Murakami, who lived for many years in New York City and still keeps a studio there, speaks fairly fluent English. He is planning a project for Los Angeles at the MoCA Gallery at the Pacific Design Center, a westside satellite of the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art. As acting as curator of the new satellite gallery's first show, "Superflat," Murakami is transforming the exterior of the boxy building into a monster by draping it with vinyl banners of rolling eyes and pointed teeth.
Since joining MoCA as director a year and a half ago, Jeremy Strick has boosted visibility and membership. Recognizing that much of the museum's funding comes from L.A.'s affluent West Side, Strick was amenable to opening the West Hollywood site. MoCA trustee Cliff Einstein, chairman and corporate creative director of Daley and Associates Advertising Agency, is one of the principal tenants of the Pacific Design Center and arranged a meeting between Strick and the building's owner Charles Cohen.
Cohen agreed to provide free use of the space that was formerly the PDC's Murray Feldman Gallery and to provide all operating expenses, including the salary of the new architecture and design curator, Brook Hodge. In Strick's words, it will be devoted to "the full range of MoCA's programming with an emphasis on architecture and design."
Which is where Superflat comes in. The term is Murakami's own, his manifesto on the way various forms of graphic design, pop culture and fine arts are compressed -- flattened -- in Japan. The term also refers to the two-dimensionality of Japanese graphic art and animation, as well as to the shallow emptiness of its consumer culture. Murakami first used it to label an exhibition he organized for the PARCO department store museums in Tokyo and Nagoya.
Now, in a few days, an expanded version of that show is to inaugurate MoCA's new venue, bringing together work by 19 artists, illustrators, animators, manga artists and commercial photographers, all pushing the boundaries of their genres where commercial art media meets fine art. "The show suggests the unity of so many of the visual arts, Strick says later, "it seems to exemplify a great deal of what we are attempting to do at the new gallery."
Murakami settles into a chair in his studio next to his larger than life-size fiberglass sculpture, My Lonesome Cowboy, -- a pornographic take on the characters in Japanese animation films -- to talk about his evolution and the concept behind "Superflat."
To Western observers, Murakami's art initially seems something of an homage to Pop artist Andy Warhol. His working methods are similar to those of the Warhol Factory, whereby his sculpture and painting, no less than his toys, t-shirts, and publications, are the result of teamwork. As Murakami speaks, a dozen young Japanese artists monitor developments at computers or do the background work on paintings that he later will finish by hand. His pieces frequently include a cast list of his collaborators and he embraces the techniques of mass production and media manipulation.
In the beginning, Murakami says, he wanted to be an animator in the style of the pioneering Yoshinori Kanada, who is known for his sci-fi animation films from the late 1970s and '80s. But Murakami felt his technique to be so weak that he could only qualify for background painting. The best training was thought to be nihon-ga, the painstaking painting of traditional Japanese subjects emphasizing outline and flat areas of color.
Like Warhol, Murakami is frank about his original motives. "My goal was to make money and build a traditional Japanese house. My parents are from Kyushu and I was raised in Tokyo. My father was a taxi driver and I was poor as a child. I hate the poor life." Both animators and nihon-ga artists are handsomely rewarded for their efforts in Japan. His brother Yuji Murakami remains a well-known nihon-ga practitioner.
From 1986 to 1993, Murakami studied nihon-ga at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, earning bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. In 1989, he took a trip to New York where he saw Jeff Koons' erotic sculptures -- a distinct contrast to the academic peaches and lotus blossoms he had been learning to render in mineral pigments mixed with glue. "What's that?" he recalls thinking. "I had to change my position to understand the contemporary art concepts."
Back in Japan the following year, he met members of the performance and installation collective Todt and moved for a few months to Brooklyn to work with them. "I was impressed by their lifestyle, it looked so free with all the drinking," he says. "They were all over 40 but they looked like they were in their 20s. Japanese artists, after 35, wear a jacket and tie and look serious, boring."
This epiphany, that artists could have fun, led him to change to "a new style of painting." Abandoning nihon-ga, he re-trained himself in acrylic, and he got involved with the Japanese subculture known as "otaku." Similar to the Western notion of computer geeks, these young people are conversant with the expanding universe of technology. In 1995, Murakami started Hiropon Factory, a conjunction of "hiro," the word for hero and the sound of an explosion, "pon," which also means tired. Murakami liked the notion of a "tired hero."
By then, he had perfected his own version of superflatness. Murakami bases his painting and sculpture on traditional Japanese themes, especially the celebration of playful childlike humor. But his images -- pastel flowers, figures like the Lonesome Cowboy, and those signature teeth and rolling eyes -- meld such influences as Japanese manga, racy cartoon books, and anime, or Japan's stylized animated films, with traditional Japanese painting and printmaking.
In the catalogue for the artist's 1999 survey at Bard College's Center of Curatorial Studies Museum, Dana Friis-Hansen writes, "Murakami has nonetheless become one of the most thoughtful -- and thought-provoking -- Japanese artists of the 1990s by building a rich body of work that both reflects upon and slyly interrogates postwar, postrecovery Japanese art and popular culture, voraciously absorbing and engaging both history and culture from Japan and the West."
His work has found a market in L.A. in particular, where he is represented by Blum & Poe. Among his collectors are high-tech magnate Peter Norton and his wife, Eileen, who sent out a special edition of one of Murakami's plastic, flower-covered dolls to those lucky enough to be on their 2000 Christmas list.
Murakami first arrived at the concept of superflat as it pertained to his own art. "I'd been thinking about the reality of Japanese drawing and painting and how it is different from Western art. What is important in Japanese art is the feeling of flatness. Our culture doesn't have 3-D," he says. "Even Nintendo, when it uses 3-D, the Japanese version looks different from the U.S. version. Mortal Combat in the U.S comes out as Virtual Fighter in Japan and it's different."
He had even noticed it back in his art history classes - searching for connections between nihon-ga and animator Kanada. The link, it turned out, was flatness. He decided that Kanada's animated sci-fi explosions were simply consecutive design motifs. (A still from Kanada's 1979 Galaxy Express 999 is included in the Superflat show.)
One notion of flatness led to another -- the compression of genres in the pop-inflected work of younger artists. "The new generation doesn't think about what is art or what is illustration," Murakami explains. "Their work is 'no genre.'"
Murakami points out that his transformation partly the result of Japan's long recession. The bubble burst in the early '90s, creating a generation that faced a level of economic uncertainty unknown since the '50s. Murakami feels that Japan's long celebration of consumerism has turned to critique.
"The Japanese people get fed TV and media for 24 hours a day," he says. "Now, we have a chance to think, 'what is my life?'" Consumer culture looks only one direction, not evolved. In the '80s, Japanese people didn't think about the meaning of life because of the strong consumer culture. Now, people are realizing there is an end. They have to think about it more than in the past. Young people are looking outside of consumer culture and asking, 'What is life?'"
Superflat artists, Murakami says, create their own version of popular culture to draw attention to the dominance of the media, entertainment and consumption. Significantly, many in the exhibition work in the industries they critique. In addition to fine artists, there are commercial photographers, fashion designers, animators, graphic designers and illustrators. Sexual innuendo and black humor are popular topics throughout the show.
Illustrator Chiho Aoshima, known for her depictions of not-so-innocent schoolgirls, has created a mural-sized digital image of The Red-Eyed Tribe, nymph-like women wearing Issey Miyake outfits and walking in a surreal landscape.
Some of the artists work as collectives or under pseudonyms. An installation with shelves and mannequins, resembling their Tokyo store, displays the deconstructivist clothing of fashion designers 20471120, whose name is a reversal of the date in group leader Masahiro Nakagawa's prediction that "something will happen on November 20, 2047." They stage shows with audience participation and create new fashions from recycled clothes.
One wall in the MoCA show features the head-shaped sculptures of animals and children by Yoshitomo Nara, a prominent contemporary artist who had a critically acclaimed survey last year at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. His sculptures of enlarged teacups and paintings of children have a winsome appeal that derives from the Japanese celebration of cute or "kawai-i." (A separate exhibition of his work is on view at Blum &Poe in Santa Monica through Feb.10.)
A graphic design firm groovisions is renowned for its work for the music industry. Groovisions has an extensive sideline of unisex mannequins called Chappies. The life-size figures are installed around Tokyo wearing outfits for sports, work or leisure. They have spawned a niche in consumer culture with Chappie currency, Chappie pachinko machines, Chappie furniture and, most recently, a Chappie techno-saccharine hit single on CD.
Thirty-three Chappies wearing different hairstyles but the same outfit are making an appearance in the MoCA show.
In the exhibition catalogue, Murakami sums up many of the concerns of his exhibition. "Initially, 'Superflat' was a keyword I used to explain my work," he writes. "Once I started using it, though, I found that it was applicable to a number of concepts that I had previously been unable to comprehend, including 'What is free expression?' 'What is Japan?' and 'What is the nature of this period I live in?'… I would be happy if (Superflat) was even a small step toward clarifying the characteristics of Japanese 'art' which have long remained so ambiguous."
"Superflat" features works by the following artists: Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Chiho Aoshima, Yoshinori Kanada, Henmaru Machino, Koji Morimoto, Katsushige Nakahashi, Shigeyoshi Ohi, Masafumi Sanai, Chikashi Suzuki, Aya Takano, Kentaro Takekuma and Hitoshi Tomizawa, and those who have adopted unconventional monikers: Bome, Enlightenment (Hiro Sugiyama), groovisions, SLEEP, and 20471120.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.