New York

“Tokyo Girls Bravo”

Childhood is no longer what it was in the days of Rousseau and Wordsworth: It’s lost its innocence. Especially in Japan—at least as it emerges in “Tokyo Girls Bravo,” a gathering of work by ten mostly under-thirty artists curated by Takashi Murakami (who organized a pair of smaller exhibitions with the same title back in 1999 that included some of the same artists). Murakami, the promoter of all things “superflat,” is, of course, a past master at giving childlike imagery nasty and malicious overtones. The consummate professionalism with which he approaches his work as an image producer, however (taking Andy Warhol’s “factory” concept several steps beyond anything its originator ever imagined), neutralizes the discordant emotions his work seems meant to emblematize. One might have expected something similar—a batch of assiduous Superflatterers?—from a group show curated by the artist. Although some might take issue with a collection of work that feminizes cuteness, kitsch, escapist fantasy, and regression in general, it can’t be denied that these qualities are also intrinsic to the art of Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and other male Japanese artists. Yet in some of the work here, the urgencies of feeling that might lie behind such artistic strategies emerge more vividly, seem more authentic. Their perversity is rawer. And the best of their work is far from flat, either formally or emotionally.

In part, this is because the artists in “Tokyo Girls Bravo,” mostly painters but also sculptors and a photographer, refer to stereotypes but don’t deploy them in a stereotyped way, though the overwhelming quantity of work and the general similarity of style made it somewhat difficult to discern individual qualities. And where Murakami is a decorator (or antidecorator), these young women are for the most part picture-makers. Aki Fujimoto’s photographic work stood out easily, since her snapshot aesthetic demanded a different kind of subtlety in putting across the requisite atmosphere of dreamy fantasy: Here, it’s more in the oblique way of looking at things than in subject matter. By contrast, the sculpture tended to founder in its literalism, especially Hisae Iwaoka’s assemblage incorporating stuffed animals. As far as painting goes, Aya Takano, Reiko Kasahara, Mahomi Kunikata, and Rei Sato were united in using watery, transparent acrylic to conjure dreamlike fantasies of girlhood in ways that emphasize precisely their unreality—yet at the same time the variously tender or biting color, line, and painterly touch they deploy help anchor their imagery in its specific physical embodiment.

Awkward, rudimentary, or seemingly artless design implies a sort of immunity to culture, if not to its discontents, but has long since amounted to a cultural tradition of its own. To a New York viewer of a certain age there is a real redolence here of the East Village, and particularly the Semaphore East gallery—one thinks not only of artists who are still going strong, like Ellen Berkenblit, but also of names that have completely disappeared from view: Does anyone but me remember Felix Pene du Bois or Janet McKiernan? I liked the mercurial and unguarded spirit of a lot of that work then and feel similarly about this new Japanese manifestation today, but I wonder whether it will have any greater staying power.

Barry Schwabsky