New York

Takashi Murakami

ON THE WALL FLANKING THE ENTRANCE to Takashi Murakami's “Mushroom” exhibition was posted a long list of names and titles, like credits of a feature film. This team (mostly young artists who work as acolyte-assistants at Murakami's Hiropon Factory studio in the suburbs of Tokyo) spent months bringing the show's fourteen large-scale paintings through production, from sketch to computer animation to painstakingly old-fashioned brushwork. Gleaming and seamless, the final canvases betray no trace of individual hands. Murakami's trademark motifs-garlands of smiley-face flowers, happy mushrooms with eyes and angry ones with fangs, blobby skeletons, and UFO-like creatures with cutesy-mutant grins—appear in bright acrylics on mostly silver grounds. In spite of these aggressively pop images, several pieces bear a marked resemblance to traditional Japanese screens, with their horizontal format and shallow, patterned explication of pictorial space. To summarize this fusion, Murakami has coined the term “superflat.”

Like most names bestowed on aesthetic styles, “superflat” both articulates tacit though far-reaching trends and helps solidify these trends into an identifiable and self-generating phenomenon. The idea encompasses the decorative rigor of traditional forms like scroll and screen painting along with nineteenth-century Japanese adaptations of Western perspective and painting techniques. But Murakami reads these historical forms through contemporary influences such as global consumerism, technological innovation, and the effects of otaku—the obsessive fandom surrounding animated films (anime), comic book illustration (manga), and the music and fashions they have spawned. A critical insight that Murakami has developed into a product line (the Hiropon Factory, for example, includes a gift shop), the concept has arrived in this country in three-part synergy: This group of paintings coincided with a sculptural installation, “Wink” in Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall; meanwhile, on the West Coast, Murakami's curatorial effort, “Superflat,” a survey of young Japanese artists, was on view at LA MoCA's Pacific Design Center annex.

What makes these artworks “superflat”? In paintings such as Champagne Super Nova and Smooth Nightmare, both 2001, the flatness is literal—their unmodulated, almost mirrored metallic backgrounds are “silver screens” on which manic characters cavort in affectless nonspace. The paintings are gorgeous, in a saccharine, ominous way. Their unmitigatedly synthetic, hyper-posthuman look laminates gradations of meaning into coolly homogeneous surfaces, so that the title “Mushroom” suggests everything from “strange delicacy” to “that which augments like a fungus” to “psychedelic drug” to “nuclear blast” but at the same time means nothing at all. Collapsing history and trendiness, commodification and aestheticism, “superflat” implies a peculiar freedom. As Murakami explains in the MoCA show's excellent catalogue, “superflat” vision is “like that of a newborn: not bound by limits, not connected to the system, not filled with information. It is a blank slate.”

Of course, such rhetoric is intentionally hyperbolic, and searching for American examples with which to frame this deeply Japanese project, we realize that we have heard about such über-blank slates before. In these lusciously banal panels, the Hiropon Factory both celebrates and exceeds its Warhol prototype. Synthesizing the scathingly ironic with the utterly sincere, Murakami zooms beyond Pop into a warp-speed realm where Andy's predigital symbology of celebrity and brand names seems touchingly direct and earthbound. Another American analogue might be the work of Raymond Pettibon. Emerging from an entirely different subculture (and as an almost hermetic solo operative), Pettibon nevertheless draws on a similar mix of punk-geek comedy and rage, fusing underground comix, music, and attitude with canonical cultural allusions. In any case, Murakami is presenting a post-Disney bad-boy extravaganza, its Western tropes fully assimilated, merged with other traditions, and reexported as indigenously, wholly Japanese. On his home turf, the artist has been roundly criticized for eroding high/low boundaries; for the American viewer, however, to ask whether these paintings are cheesy or smart, cynical or generous, is to be caught in a worldview that Murakami cheerfully eviscerates. The relentless flattening of such dualisms is where the “super” part comes in.

Frances Richard

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