At Juxtapoz x Superflat, cute meets grotesque in surreal irreverence

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      Juxtapoz x Superflat
      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until February 5

      MADSAKI’s graffiti mural of cartoon characters, with Big Bird carrying a “Fuck Off!” sign. Erin M. Riley’s handwoven tapestry based on a scene of homemade pornography. Paco Pomet’s painting of complacent country-clubbers whose absurdly elongated legs morph into a heap of slimy pink guts. David Shrigley’s larger-than-life sculpture of a weirdly proportioned naked man who periodically pisses into a bucket.

      There’s no shortage of provocation in Juxtapoz x Superflat. No shortage of street-culture strategies, pop-culture memes, and youthful irreverence, either.

      Recently opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the survey exhibition is curated by Takashi Murakami, Japan’s most renowned contemporary artist, and Evan Pricco, editor in chief of the San Francisco–based magazine Juxtapoz Art & Culture.

      This big, colourful, and (mostly) engaging show brings together works that correspond to Murakami’s “superflat” premise, which, among other determinants, draws on Japanese graphic design, anime, and manga, and erases distinctions between high art and commercial art.

      Pittsburgh Joely Jug by Rebecca Morgan.
      Courtesy of Asya Geisberg Gallery

      Other works in the show reflect Juxtapoz magazine’s interest in outsider art, street art, pop surrealism, cartooning, and American punk, skate, tattoo, and custom-car cultures. The works on view, by 36 artists from Japan, the United States, Korea, China, Canada, and Europe, demonstrate the increasingly wide influence—and consolidation—of these ideas and strategies.

      Although the show’s introductory panel asserts that the works represented here “cannot be described by the traditional categories of art”, the media and materials employed are far from revolutionary. Neither are the genres represented­—including portraiture, landscape, and still life—exactly cutting-edge.

      Rather, the paintings, drawings, sculptures, ink-jet prints, motion-activated video, mixed-media installations, and fabric art deploy imagery that challenges institutional aesthetics and subject matter. The show abounds with the fantastical, the surreal, the irreverent, and the cute.

      For example, Mark Ryden’s ornately framed oil painting Anatomia depicts, in muted pastel colours, a “Big Eyes”–style girl, standing in a soft-focus landscape of flowering lawns, groomed foliage, and palm trees. The kicker is that she is dressed in a gown composed of heaped and bisected viscera.

      Hideous as such innards might seem, they are painted using the same muted colours and super-sweet style as the figure.

      Christian Rex van Minnen’s painting Coat of Arms—so sleekly detailed and tightly rendered that it resembles a Photoshopped image—conflates a raft of alluring and repellent images and motifs, including brilliantly coloured gummy worms that take on unexpected organic and sexual shapes.

      This coat of arms also includes a hideously morphing death’s head, sharply pointed spears, and, yes, more viscera. Much more viscera.

      The Death of Marat by He Xiangyu.
      Courtesy of Kaikai Kiki Co.

      As seen in these works, one of the recurring strategies in Juxtapoz x Superflat is placing the cute or sweet smack up against the grotesque or revolting. There’s a lot of just plain cuteness, too, such as that seen in ceramic sculptures from Japan’s Otani Workshop.

      Scattered throughout the show, these works depict a range of creatures and mythical beings, with references to an international array of ceramic traditions and influences. However, all of the sculptures are characterized by large, round, cartoonlike heads and small, simple, childlike facial features, a treatment that oddly infantilizes the subjects.

      The show’s text panels reveal that cuteness is an important element of Murakami’s superflat thesis. It’s also an aspect of what he has identified as a “distinctly Japanese aesthetic sen-sibility”, revealed in manga, anime, and the Japanese fan-based subculture known as otaku.

      It’s revealed, too, in kawaii, the culture of cuteness that is so prevalent in Japan and so puzzling to non-Japanese viewers. Murakami, we’re told, sees otaku and kawaii as “a specific response to the cultural trauma and devastation of the atomic bomb and the economic subjugation that followed”. This is a revelatory idea.

      Some of the American artists here seem interested in revealing the fears and frights that stand behind western fables and fairy tales. Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor, for instance, has created three large figures with animal heads (donkey, fox, pig) out of found materials, including Styrofoam, lumber, old bed linen, and cardboard.

      Little Miss Gravestone's Absent Musing, a video animation by Chiho Aoshima.
      Chiho Aoshima/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd.

      These works are commanding, amusing, and a bit frightening in the way that they address our long cultural history of using animal stories as metaphors for human behaviour.

      As always with the VAG’s big survey shows, there are a few disappointments here. Once again, male artists seriously outnumber female artists. And it would have been great if, instead of the cartoon-character mural that MADSAKI produced for the exhibition, he had been able to show a couple of his graffiti-style takes on the modernist canon.

      His reinterpretations of paintings by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse are much smarter and more challenging than his expletive-wielding Muppets.