Erina Matsui, Nightmare Before New Year, 2013, oil on canvas, wire, 27 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 3/4".

Erina Matsui, Nightmare Before New Year, 2013, oil on canvas, wire, 27 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 3/4".

Erina Matsui

Kunsraum Kreuzberg (Künstlerhaus Bethanien) /

Erina Matsui, Nightmare Before New Year, 2013, oil on canvas, wire, 27 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 3/4".

In “Road Sweet Road,” her first exhibition in Germany, the Japanese artist Erina Matsui showed seven paintings, three wall objects, and a video, in addition to the installation Road Sweet Road mit Künstlerhaus Bethanien (all works 2013), which was literally and thematically its centerpiece, and lent its title to the show as a whole. The psychedelic quality of Matsui’s imagery simultaneously alienates and fascinates: In her self-portraits, for instance, she combines attributes that typify the Japanese idea of kawaii, or “cute,” with surreal deformations. Throughout her oeuvre, Matsui represents herself in extraordinarily detailed, minutely executed paintings. Often she paints her face larger than life, so that it hyperrealistically fills the canvas, but with grotesque distortions and transformations. In Growing, for example, she shows herself as a turnip with an unsettlingly dreamy smile, slumbering in the ground. In Nightmare Before New Year, her face becomes a cloudswaddled planet from which the Brandenburg Gate looms into outer space, surrounded by fireworks.

The cosmic-apocalyptic tone of this self-portrait is new for Matsui. Yet there is always a specific note of ambivalence: Her images are comedic in an absurd, caricaturesque way and often play with childlike, naive elements, but they are far too cryptic, charged, and disturbing to be simply amusing. The technically perfect handling of color also contributes to the work’s power. A refined depiction of skin tones or variations in the sheen of lips or hair is developed through the application of many layers of paint worked with a variety of brushes.

The exhibition’s title alludes to the importance of the road as a leitmotif in Matsui’s work. According to the artist, in Japan, the word for “road” is synonymous with “human life.” This theme is directly expressed in several of the self-portraits—for example Crossroad, in which Matsui’s face seems to be splitting in two at an intersection in a parklike landscape—as well as in the central installation. A massive base supports a landscape arrangement comprising plush green carpeting, plastic flowers, and animal figurines, bordered at the back by nearly human-size round-headed forms whose frightening pink faces are derived from the head of the axolotl—uparupa in Japanese. The “upa” is omnipresent in Matsui’s work and functions as the artist’s alter ego and mascot.

A path through the installation leads diagonally across carpet/ grass to a painting. The path proceeds straight into the picture, where it is bordered by trees, and continues to the horizon. But in the painting, this road morphs into the artist’s face, a stretched self-portrait with closed eyes, as if she were caught up in dreams. Little Bambi figurines cross the path, pink axolotls peek saucily out from behind trees, and many colorful stars, as well as a huge planet Jupiter, can be seen in the night sky. The painting, overloaded with forms, is trippy, kitschy, and very kawaii. Calling the figures that populate her paintings “signature toys,” Matsui brings Japan’s prevailing aesthetic of cuteness into her work in a purposeful way. She develops a complex microcosm, a phantasmagoria for the viewer to unfold, as Matsui herself says, “just like unwrapping a present.”

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Anne Posten.