Los Angeles

Tiger Tateishi, Revolving Fuji, 1991, oil on canvas, 89 1⁄2 × 63".

Tiger Tateishi, Revolving Fuji, 1991, oil on canvas, 89 1⁄2 × 63".

Takuro Tamayama and Tiger Tateishi

It was dusk, and the storefront of Nonaka-Hill had just lit up. The gallery, housed under a deceptive marquee reading BEST CLEANERS, was preparing to open for its evening hours. Inside, a delicate, neon-hued landscape composed of table-like sculptures huddled in the center of the room, illuminated by a suspended glowing orb and fluorescent lights tinted with Day-Glo gels. On the elevated ground, a work by Takuro Tamayama, a marble humanoid shape’s head, slowly rotated, stressing its pawn-like form. Two of Tamayama’s videos—one projected on a wall and the other playing on a boxy monitor—staged vibrant abstract interactions between lightbulbs, patterns, and amoeba-esque forms, adding to the electric palette of the show and complicating the dizzying afterimage of the fluorescents’ complementary colors. Sectioned off by curtains that enclosed other works, the gallery’s chambers felt narrow. In the last of the small rooms, a two-headed mop thing hung from the ceiling, spinning slowly, while a couple of standing LED lamps anthropomorphically faced the far wall, projecting their bright-white beams onto a large, detailed painting by Tiger Tateishi.

Tateishi, the second artist in this dual presentation, is legendary. He died young, in his mid-fifties, but he left behind a uniquely humorous and prescient body of work in his distinctive style, which betrays a lively imagination informed by graphic novels, science fiction, and gravity-defying cartoon scenes. Through paintings, drawings, and prints, Tateishi constructed Twilight Zone–like stories. As an emerging Pop artist in the 1960s, he reprocessed the popular culture of Japan—its iconography, its monuments, and its iterations of Western culture. Mount Fuji, for example, is a recurring animated character in many of Tateishi’s works.

The painting on the wall was, like its surroundings at the gallery, divided into vignettes, a sequence of storyboard frames articulating a narrative. The first frame presents a dining room where a table with a centerpiece is surrounded by three chairs, all scenically situated in front of a large window offering a view of the famed Japanese volcano. In the second frame, the room is warped, appearing to have tipped clockwise; the furniture tumbles to the bottom-right corner of the composition. The chairs’ and table’s legs buckle as if the objects are trying to maintain their balance amid the movements of the surrounding architecture. As the vignettes progress, the rotation continues; at one point, a side table appears to be actively running after the central furniture. Outside the window, in what looks like a view from a spaceship’s porthole, Mount Fuji is also turning. It is not until the final image that everything settles, perfectly rearranged, flowers and all—though now entirely upside down. The critical implications of the quotidian scene, dramatically upturned and then re-ironed into the picturesque, seem cutting and cultural. But in the back room of the gallery, a number of smaller, similarly storyboard-style prints zoomed out, imagining comparable seismic events on other planets and in other landscapes, suggesting a more all-encompassing perspective on the disruption and reconfiguration of universes.

It was a beautiful show, entirely seductive. But it left one wondering about the relationship between the two artists. Tamayama’s elaborate environments showcased Tateishi’s work (making the endeavor neither a traditional two-person show nor a collaboration), but also seemed to pull from its inventiveness without contributing much to its world. The gallery materials stated that the artists “share penchants for surprising fantasy narrative works depicting evolutions of our planet and others, often through the anthropomorphism of common objects.” This summary was accurate in formal terms, but conceptually one artist clearly outshines the other. Positioning artists from two generations on equal footing is never easy (and is perhaps as difficult as balancing a hamburger vertically on top of an upright sandwich, which is the task of a 2019 Tamayama sculpture that was near the entrance of the show), but this exhibition seemed to have been more interested in creating shrines for Tateishi while breaking the fourth wall of his pictures—and I have no problem with that.