Bye Bye Kitty!!! at Japan Society Gallery, NYC, March 18 – June 12, 2011

It seems like a long time since 2005 when I reviewed the exhibition Little Boy, curated by Japanese art star Takashi Murakami; picture an Asian Andy Warhol on Redbull. It was a celebration of all things Kawaii, or cute, which were commercially successful for decades in the form of film anime, manga comics and scale figures. Little Boy offered up proof of a widespread “exploding subculture” of which contemporary art, itself, was only a small part. The artists mimicked the culture, copying all the attributes of printed matter/comics; Murakami insisted on the “Super-Flat” like a mantra. This East-West mix caught on, a fascinating reversal of how Japanese print styles (flatness) influenced European modernists in the 19th century. Of course, the Japanese Empire, in turn, had quickly borrowed Western military technology in 1905, unfortunately, following our example of colonization. Hello Kitty Mania was, in short, the result of the disastrous events of WW2 and the Cold War. By now, I imagine many geekish, “housebound” Otaku gentlemen must have grown up, gotten jobs, and started families.

Now, with a curatorial about-face, the Japan Society slows down and takes stock with a more considered and delicate show, Bye Bye Kitty!!!. At this catastrophic time of triple disaster in Japan, there is irony in seeking the opposite side of the coin. This sobering show does succeed in leaving out infantile cacophony. Some of the more somber elements had, in fact, been included in Little Boy, which makes one think that the whole “cute” poise was a blind for something else, mass disassociation and/or future-phobia. Bye Bye Kitty!!! is certainly a charged title – ditto Little Boy, the name of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – implying that Kawaii, “cuteness,” has peaked. It was never “ha ha” funny, and always lived happily buried within an animatic, Akira-like apocalypse.

Bye Bye Kitty!!! faces this subtler content as a matter of degree, a clearing of cultural smoke. The Fukushima “fallout” is a dreadful reminder of the fragile state of life on Earth — that’s how Godzilla (born 1954) was created in the first place! This Spartan view was a large part of the whole Kawaii/Otaku movement, a dark nuclear legacy paired with fetishized fashion and the penchant for nubile schoolgirls.**

The work selected for Bye Bye Kitty!!! lives up to the title; not a toy in sight. Artist Manabu Ikeda forms the backbone of the show with large detailed landscapes full of microcosm and metaphor within an apocalyptic day-to-day. Intense viewing is required here; the beautifully detailed, minute human behavior and technological interweaving is mesmerizing (my bi-focals were not sufficient!) One piece takes on a pagoda structure, another, a chunk of the earth floating in space. The third work is an organic tree-like structure including all human folly miniaturized, like a high-tech Bosch. I needed a magnifying glass.

The most compelling work is by London based artist Hiraki Sawa. His large video — a whimsical, stop-action animation — is a blend of Japanese understatement with warm, old-fashioned, Western sentiments, a modernized and gentle version of the Quay Brothers. Wrapped in a nostalgic look at childhood, the piece includes Victorian Rocking horses, chimes and all sorts of surreal, Anglo-Japanese montage including English wall sockets. Sawa’s smaller piece, the size of an alarm clock, is tiny and powerful: A silent black and white video with household objects — toasters, spoons, toilet rolls – that one sees walking around on fairy-sized human legs. Perfect contemporary humor and no inane cartoon cats.

To bid you a farewell as you exit the show, the ever-popular painter Yoshitomo Nara places an unassuming photo of two stuffed, oversized, Hello Kitties near the door. They are sitting on a tombstone in a pet cemetery.

** So are aspiring dirty old men on the wane? Judging by my recent visit to Zenkaicon, the Anime/Manga show at Valley Forge Convention Center, this phenomenon shows no sign of diminishing. There’s plenty of participation – some amateur K-pop dancing in the halls – by dressed up, or under-dressed, super ninja school girls and big eyed men-children with long shiny forelocks. Is Emo-con a word? These creatures mingle shyly in the hotel lobby where young, freshly married couples are being professionally photographed!

© 2011 James Rosenthal

In his introduction to "Michael Kenna: A Twenty Year Retrospective", Peter Bunnell explored the notion of the “unheroic landscape,” a term that aptly described the photographer’s “concern for the land more as feeling than about the land as place.” I recognized in this characterization a kindred sensibility that continues to inform my work. I find myself drawn to both the apposition and opposition of natural and human-made elements in landscape photography, and seek to convey the emotional to and fro between timelessness and evanescence.
Geoffrey Ansel Agrons
Geoffrey Ansel Agrons

In his introduction to "Michael Kenna: A Twenty Year Retrospective", Peter Bunnell explored the notion of the “unheroic…

In his introduction to "Michael Kenna: A Twenty Year Retrospective", Peter Bunnell explored the notion of the “unheroic landscape,” a term that aptly described the photographer’s “concern for…

In his introduction to "Michael Kenna: A Twenty Year Retrospective", Peter Bunnell explored the notion of the “unheroic landscape,” a term that aptly described the photographer’s “concern for the land more as feeling…

Arlene Solomon is a collage and mixed media artist who has been studying art for 15 years. Her collages have a definite sense of playfulness and nostalgia.
Arlene Solomon
Arlene Solomon

Arlene Solomon is a collage and mixed media artist who has been studying art for 15 years. Her collages have a definite sense…

Arlene Solomon is a collage and mixed media artist who has been studying art for 15 years. Her collages have a definite sense of playfulness and nostalgia.…

Arlene Solomon is a collage and mixed media artist who has been studying art for 15 years. Her collages have a definite sense of playfulness and nostalgia.…

Nancy Kress is an InLiquid artist member.
Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is an InLiquid artist member.…

Nancy Kress is an InLiquid artist member.…

Nancy Kress is an InLiquid artist member.…

Michele Kishita is a Philadelphia-based painter who strives to conjure the landscape that no longer exists but is inherently contained in each of her panels. She investigates the visual contrast and harmony where human-made structures and nature intersect. Her paintings are strongly influenced by the graphic stylizations and compressed spaces of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Kishita’s paintings are in a number of private/corporate collections, including Toyota, Capital One, and Kaiser Permanente. She has participated in artist residencies in New Mexico, Russia, and Iceland and exhibited at the Sharjah Art Museum in the United Arab Emirates and the Museum of Non-Conformist Art in St. Petersburg, Russia. She holds a BFA and MFA from the University of the Arts.
Michele C. Kishita
Michele C. Kishita

Michele Kishita is a Philadelphia-based painter who strives to conjure the landscape that no longer exists but is inherently…

Michele Kishita is a Philadelphia-based painter who strives to conjure the landscape that no longer exists but is inherently contained in each of her panels. She investigates the visual contrast and harmony…

Michele Kishita is a Philadelphia-based painter who strives to conjure the landscape that no longer exists but is inherently contained in each of her panels. She investigates the visual contrast and harmony where human-made…

Cheryl Levin
Cheryl Levin
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