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Takashi Murakami
DOB in the Strange Forest

Takashi Murakami
Smooth Nightmare

Charlie White
The Cocktail Party

A sample from Mr.'s (Masukatu Iwamoto) Venus #2

Yoshitomo Nara
Quiet, Quiet

Kenji Yanobe
Survival Racing Car, Yellow

Mariko Mori
Last Departure

Inka Essenhigh
The Adoration

Paul McCarthy
Dwarf Head
Cartoon Reality
by Ned Higgins

"My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation," July 28-Oct. 3, 2001, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238.

As if to perk things up for New Yorkers still in town during the dog days of summer, the latest exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum gives us what looks like a big playroom full of oversized toys.

This festival of off-beat cuteness is titled "My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation," despite the fact that its 17 contemporary artists hail from the U.S., Great Britain, Holland, Korea and Greece as well as from Japan. It was organized by Des Moines Art Center director Susan Lubowsky Talbott and curator Jeff Fleming, and debuted at Des Moines. Independent Curators Incorporated has brought the show to Brooklyn, and will travel it to half a dozen other venues over the coming couple of years.

Clearly, the popularity of cartoons in the art world signals a taste for simplicity, innocence and fun. At the same time, the works in this show have a darker, more dystopic cast -- specifically, they engage notions of technological apocalypse, social alienation and the impropriety of desire.

In an essay in the catalogue, Takashi Murakami posits that the Japanese affection for manga (comic books) and anime (animated cartoons) is part of a "culture of impotence" that results from the despair felt in Japan over its dramatic defeat in World War II.

Taking blandness to new heights is Momoyo Torimitsu's Somehow I Don't Feel Comfortable (2000), a pair of 16-foot inflatable bunnies that tower over the rest of the exhibition. Their hot pink color and fixed smiles are monumentally dumb; these figures would be more at home as prizes in a shooting gallery. Like Pop Art, Torimitsu levels expectations of what art in a high-brow museum should look like, offering I suppose, a sense of relief.

Murakami's 1999 sculpture DOB in the Strange Forest depicts a Mickey Mouse-type creature with a lightning bolt for a tail. Standing on a round platform, DOB is surrounded by multi-colored mushrooms with green eyes that stare vapidly in all directions. DOB rises up on his marshmallowy white toes and holds his palms out as if to say "Stop!" What's going on here, exactly? The viewer is faced with a mysterious dilemma that can't be solved.

In his painting Smooth Nightmare (2001), a cavalcade of mutant mushrooms of many shapes and sizes comport themselves against a flat silver field, a cartoon version of the stranded shapes of Yves Tanguy. These creatures stare out into the void with expectation, looking either bored, panicked or glassy-eyed. Murakami's fantasy world has an oddball gravity that lampoons, perhaps, the potential meaninglessness of existence.

California photographer Charlie White offers a comic take on being socially accepted. His photographs depict party scenes and introduce Joshua, a naked and under-nourished monster who looks comically vulnerable. In The Cocktail Party (2000), the gangly star addresses a blonde in a room of people who look unbearably popular and well-adjusted. Ken's Basement (2000) shows Joshua being fed cake by a buxom woman in a group of slovenly teenagers sprawled out on a rug. White's pictures riff on the basic anxiety of being in social situations. Thankfully, anyone would look good next to Joshua.

Cute characters are abundant in this exhibition, but their cuteness is often made lurid, or used to make distressing ideas even more so. In Mr.'s (Masukatu Iwamoto) work Venus #2 (2001), his small cartoon drawings of girls are classically anime -- that is, they have supercharged smiles, neon-colored hair and short skirts. Some of these prepubescent girls are nude and others offer teasing glimpses of their underwear, mixing the innocence of cartoons with forbidden notions of pedophilia. But their amazing confidence makes such temptations seem harmless.

In Yoshitomo Nara's Quiet, Quiet (1999), a pair of children's heads stacked like a totem rises from within a giant teacup. Their cartoon sweetness underscores an oddly grave situation. With their eyes closed and complexions a ghostly white, the faces resemble death masks. Perhaps the round cup represents a billowing mushroom cloud that has covered these child corpses with a fine layer of ash.

Kenji Yanobe offers a child's solution to the threat of nuclear war. His Atomic Car, White (1998) and Survival Racing Car, Yellow (1997) are humorously compact, cartoon vehicles -- just the right size for a five year old. The cars are equipped with geiger counters and other devices to combat the lethal atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic world. Yanobe's other work, Survival Gacha-pon (1998), is a nine-foot-tall gumball machine that dispenses plastic capsules filled with "survival goods" such as matchbooks, cookies and teabags.

Powerful and sexy female cyborgs are popular in anime, personifying the thrill and fear of technology. Korean artist Lee Bul makes cyborg body armor in cast ceramic -- a breakable material -- to alleviate the dread of the mechanical. Netherlandish artist Micha Klein offers Virtualistic Vibes, Space Nicky (1996), a light-hearted photograph that combines a Metropolis-like android and a supermodel.

And Mariko Mori's work quietly observes that a current of mysticism can coexist with a technological world. Her still photograph Last Departure (1996) places the artist on a crosswalk bridge at the Kansai International Airport in Osaka. Wearing a silver wig and space-age costume, Mori is frozen in concentration over a crystal globe hovering between her hands. Mori has generated two transparent duplicate selves that flank her, paralleling the symmetry of the bridge's arches. This otherworldly ritual could indicate her ability to meld with the mechanized structure surrounding her.

Some of artists' work fails to adopt the playful spirit of the exhibition. In Inka Essenhigh's The Adoration (1999), a shape resembling a kidney floats in a flat green field. At the shape's center, a mutant creature struggles to pull itself through a tight opening while three anxious beings watch from a platform below. In Supergod (2000), a figure on a clamshell-like plateau is caught in a mass of tentacles. According to the catalogue, Essenhigh's "superflat" paintings reflect the appearance of Japanese animation. Curiously, her use of enamel and muted colors makes the work inert, as though the painting's inhabitants crept along in a much slower time. Essenhigh's works are dark, perhaps brutal; there's no comic relief in them to soothe the pressures of life.

There's also something amiss in including the sardonic L.A. artist Paul McCarthy. In Dwarf Heads (2000), the artist has molded multiple heads of a character from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Cast in the colors blue and black, the disembodied heads are reminiscent of commercial trinkets pulled from a cereal box. The wall blurb tells us how these innocuous Disney characters have generated widespread popularity, like Japan's ubiquitous Hello Kitty. But considering McCarthy's love of things perverse, he's probably sifting for a deep wrong in viewers who find these characters adorable.

Rounding out the show is Greek artist Miltos Manetas' affecting video stars Lara Croft, of Tomb Raider fame. In Flames I (1997), Lara runs through a maze of narrow corridors equipped with axe blades that swing like pendulums at every intersection. Each time she is struck down, the video loops her back to the beginning, dooming her to repeat the mistake.

"My Reality" subsequently travels to the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Oh. (Jan. 24-March 31, 2002); the Tampa Museum of Art (April 21-June 23, 2002); the Chicago Cultural Center (July 13-Sept. 8, 2002); the Akron Art Museum (Sept. 21, 2002-Jan. 5, 2003); the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla. (spring 2003); and the Huntsville Museum of Art, Huntsville, Al. (Oct. 13, 2003-Jan. 4, 2004).

NED HIGGINS is managing editor of Artnet Magazine.