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Boston's Alternative Source!

[Art reviews]

Shiny, happy mushrooms
Takashi Murakami brings Tokyo cool to the MFA


" Takashi Murakami:Made in Japan "
At the Museum of Fine Arts April 25 through September 3.

Entering the Museum of Fine Arts’ Galleria Café, Takashi Murakami is rumpled and youthful in a baseball cap, wire-rimmed glasses, and a little goatee. He rubs his eyes and orders a cappuccino — coffee being an important first step, since the artist has been working around the clock to install his wild and colorful " Made in Japan " in the MFA’s Foster Gallery. It is his first solo exhibition in a major museum in the United States, though the 39-year-old artist has already developed a significant international reputation as an artist and now also as a curator, having promoted kindred art spirits in a splashy group exhibition called " Superflat " that opened last month at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. In Boston, Murakami was offered the chance to exhibit a selection of his own work alongside a rarely seen pair of 18th-century Japanese scrolls from the MFA’s permanent collection. Describing the enormous thrill and humbling experience of seeing the original works here, after knowing and admiring them in reproductions, perks him up more noticeably than the caffeine does. " They were very fresh, very large. I was astounded. " But however respectfully he acknowledges his debt to traditional Japanese art, his own artwork is unmistakably of the moment, reflecting his contemporary experience living in Tokyo. " The subject matter of my art, it is like Cézanne painting Mont Ste. Victoire — I am surrounded by cute images and figures from cartoons and comic books, and so that is what I paint. "

Walking into " Made in Japan " is like a visual sugar rush — you’re hit with a high-energy blast of images and figures that look like the beaming offspring of Mickey Mouse and the Power Puff Girls. Murakami’s paintings and sculpture are full of big bobbing cartoon characters with wide grins, colorful flowers with smily faces, and brightly colored flora and fauna done in the slick, friendly style familiar from Japanese cartoons (manga) and animation (anime). Visitors to " Made in Japan " are greeted by the oversized tilted face of Mr. DOB, the copyrighted mouselike cartoon character whom the artist created to appeal to a mass audience. Mr. DOB embodies a quality that the Japanese call kawaii, or " being cute, " an aspect of Japanese culture that Murakami is interested in. He explains that he doesn’t consider the term " cute " to be insulting but rather appreciates that the plethora of adorable images streaming out of Japan today (think " Hello Kitty " ) serve as important visual relief for the highly stressed Japanese society. Mr. DOB is a signature image, and he appears in various forms in many of Murakami’s works, functioning as a kind of self-portrait. In one painting here, PO + KO Surrealism (Green) (1999), he’s been morphed, sliced, and reconfigured into long strips that the artist sees as related to Native American totem poles, representing the layered aspect of building an identity. Murakami says that the letters " DOB " are an abbreviation of a Japanese word meaning " Why? " ; the intent was to give Mr. DOB an existential aspect.

To Western eyes, Murakami’s imagery and style recall both Andy Warhol and Walt Disney, with their dead-on radar for Pop imagery — and the artist is certainly aware of these two icons of post-1945 American culture. Murakami himself received his training in a traditional 19th-century Japanese painting style called nihon-ga, which is a synthesis of several influences, including elements of Chinese and Western art; in 1986, he became the first person to receive a doctorate in nihon-ga, from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. This traditional art form continues to play a strong role in his work, and his search to express the post–World War II Japanese identity draws not only on his fascination with his country’s contemporary entertainment industry but also on his knowledge of traditional Japanese culture.

The artist seems to enjoy the contradictions he embodies, and he often speaks with a deadpan irony that again echoes Warhol, whom he says he admires. When asked about his decision to study nihon-ga, he says that as student he wanted to be an animator until he realized, as he puts it, that he had no talent. He decided that the next best thing would be to study traditional Japanese painting in order to get a lucrative job painting the backgrounds for animated films. He stresses the importance of selling his art (not to mention the T-shirts, balloons, posters, and computer mousepads, etc., that he also markets) in order to finance more ambitious projects and to reach the largest audience.

This is a distinctly Pop stance, and it is true that much of " Made in Japan " can be enjoyed entirely for its decorative pleasures. But Murakami’s work also manipulates and critiques the insidious aspects of mass-market appeal. The enormous seven-panel Mushroom Painting (1999) serves up countless mushrooms of varying sizes painted in eye-popping colors and arrayed in a long horizontal row against a solid silver background. Dotted with wide-open cartoon eyes and long eyelashes, each mushroom stares innocently or looks flirtatiously at viewers. Children stretch out their hands to the playful-looking work. Yet this mutant, anthropomorphic forest has a dark side. Mushrooms can be poisonous or psychedelic, and who can forget the horrific mushroom cloud on our relationship with Japan (though Murakami says he just enjoys looking at mushrooms in the grocery store). The extensive silver background holds up a mirror to the viewer; like the wide eyes, it is both innocent and unsettling. Even the style of rendering the images is paradoxical. Each mushroom is drawn in a highly graphic style, defined by uniform black outlines rather than by painterly brushwork. Yet Murakami does each one by hand: his clean images are then translated to computer graphics. Moreover each of the hundreds of colors is hand mixed and applied, so that a multitude of studio assistants and several months of work are required.

According to MFA curator Cheryl Brutvan, who organized " Made in Japan, " Murakami has an affinity with the " individualists " or " eccentrics " who worked during Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868). These artists were best known for developing personal styles that were out of step with current taste. In particular, Soga Shohaku (1730-1781) has inspired Murakami, and so at the MFA, in an act that he says would be unthinkable in Japan, Shohaku’s Dragon and Tiger and The Daoist Immortals Li Tieguai and Liu Haichan have been placed next to his work at the MFA. He says he’s been influenced by the way Soga Shohaku exaggerates the features of his characters, parodying rather than expressing the philosophical subject matter of the traditional Chinese themes that are incorporated into the Japanese scrolls. In juxtaposing his own work with these venerable scrolls, Murakami seems to continue the delicate, ongoing exercise of trying on and synthesizing outside influences without losing an authentic native voice, an exercise whose long history in Japan can be explored in the MFA’s concurrent exhibition " Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Meiji Prints from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection, " which is on view through July 15.

Admiring the Edo scrolls, Murakami points out that he is drawn to the depiction of weightlessness and the lack of gravity in Soga Shohaku’s painting of the Daoist Immortal Li Tieguai, who is shown exhaling a large, expressively brushed breath. Way up in the cloud of breath, we see the tiny figure of this character’s true self being exhaled from what turns out to have been merely a temporary host body. Nearby are several versions of Murakami’s " Splash " paintings, in which bursts of liquid are painted against monochrome backgrounds. The large splash paintings, like Milk and Cream at the MFA, convey a serenity we often associate with Japanese paintings, and they remind us of the stylized waves of Hokusai. Yet in this work Murakami also acknowledges the abstract expressionism that dominated Western art after World War II. In the wonderful small Whoosh (1998), we see Mr. DOB trying to ride a liquid splash; he has tumbled upside down, cheerful but disoriented. In this ambiguous self-portrait of a culture that has been on a wild ride throughout the modern era, Murakami holds up a provocative mirror to contemporary global society.

Issue Date: May 17-24, 2001