San Francisco

Takeshi Murata, Golden Banana, 2011, pigment print, 30 x 42 1/2".

Takeshi Murata, Golden Banana, 2011, pigment print, 30 x 42 1/2".

Takeshi Murata

Takeshi Murata, Golden Banana, 2011, pigment print, 30 x 42 1/2".

Takeshi Murata’s recent show at Ratio 3 arrested the pixelated frenzy of the artist’s earlier breakthrough video work, trading in visual pyrotechnics for glossy listlessness in a series of nine vibrant, if seemingly banal, still lifes. Titled “Get Your Ass to Mars” (after a throwaway line from the 1990 Schwarzenegger action classic Total Recall), these natures mortes grouped bits of outmoded technological detritus into meticulous arrangements accented with such miscellaneous objects as VHS tapes, books of criticism, beer bottles and cans, lemons, oranges, and a glass pot pipe. But these are not exactly objets trouvés; each item has been carefully rendered using cutting-edge CGI technology (V-Ray with Cinema 4D). Plucked from the digital ether and set within vacuum-sealed virtual backdrops, these “objects” even cast artificial shadows exactly where expected—and the illusion is complete. Quickly, though, this uncanny trompe l’oeil gives way to a feeling of claustrophobia, an intuitive sense that even if objects and spaces in these images are pictorially distinct, their base material is a homogenous field of zeros and ones—a flat, continuous plane of airless code.

Murata’s compositions are almost comically classical, the artist having incorporated Baroque motifs and detail with the same abandon with which he has deployed B-movie footage in the past. In this new work, familiar symbols of mortality—eggs, cut fruit, skulls—resound with echoes of van Beyeren, and the eerie glow of neon light could almost pass (in mood, if not in color) for a steely Netherlandish sky. The overall effect is something like a vanitas for the digital age—or how else might we describe a tableau of Warholish bananas strewn beside a deer skull (à la Georgia O’Keeffe) punctuated by a cracked iPhone?

But despite Baudrillardian vibrations of the hyperreal, Murata’s work stops short of offering yet another requiem for aged new media—be it digital or analog. Instead, his images unfold as a rather formal, if somewhat morose, meditation on process. After all, the artist has always used new technologies to give new life to the discarded, manipulating transferred analog footage to achieve dazzling Op art effects. Here, he offers a strange sort of personal archive, amassing remnants of material history by re-creating varia as idealized digital forms only to abstract them further, arranged as schizophrenic Genzken-style symbolic portraits: We find VHS tapes of schlock horror films beside a Surrealist’s pipe; the metallic skull from The Terminator a few inches from a book titled Art of the Future. Like Jasper Johns’s bronze Savarin can, Murata’s work presents a game of internal code-breaking imbedded within an already self-aware process of imagemaking.

Murata’s practice has always been located somewhere between base matter and transubstantiation, a sleight of hand that underscores the technological as always already caught up in its own obsolescence. This is a grappling with mortality of a different sort, one that mines the half-life of images, and it is what illuminates the video animation I, Popeye, 2010, which offers a postmillennial vision of the 1930s cartoon icon rendered by Murata in 3-D from memory. His European copyrights having now expired, the adventuresome sailor man is cast as a zombie working in a spinach factory. Yet Popeye’s costars, we soon learn, were assigned far worse fates: Bluto is on life support, and Olive Oyl and Swee’pea are dead and buried. Wimpy, here a menacing landlord, ultimately drives our hero to suicide, instantly transporting Popeye into a psychedelic afterlife—a universe more than a little reminiscent of the artist’s earlier visual terrain. It’s difficult to extract a clear moral from this grim tale, but Murata seems to suggest that images never quite expire, ascending instead to a pliable purgatory to await their reincarnation.

Franklin Melendez