It seems these days that Japanese art is hot or new or one of the next great things. Murakami’s enormous retrospective exhibition at Brooklyn Museum is an obvious milestone, but the range of group shows and smaller exhibitions in galleries throughout the city in the past year or two featuring Japanese artists has grown exponentially.
Curator and Little Cakes gallerist Hanna Fushihara Aron presents her perspective on an under-recognized faction of Japanese artists.
“Sticky, Messy, and Sweet” focuses on a particularity found not only in contemporary Japanese art but also in its culture where at first glance things may look candy colored sweet, but there are other layers and depths which are opposite to the stereotypically orderly and clean image that outsiders have of Japan. The country being both historically xenophobic and self-conscious has the tendency to hide the unkempt, obsessive, or perverted underbelly.
As one example, many have not heard about the growing number of young homeless in Japan. As seen in a recent NHK (Japan’s PBS) documentary, teenage runaways use “Manga Kissa” or “Manga Cafes” as cheap places to sleep overnight. The tiny rooms normally used to surf the net or sit and read comics offer only a lounge chair to sleep sitting upright in. During the day these kids might wear Hello Kitty bottled perfume to hide their unwashed body odor and sport their one and only in-style outfit, but at night they go back into the world of shadows. Another example can be seen in Mike Mills’ documentary “Does your soul have a cold?” which follows five people living with depression in Japan, a nation where the word for depression has only started to be known widely for less than ten years. Anyone “sick” should not be seen. Anyone with a hint of the sniffles should wear a face mask to protect others from getting sick.
This is not to say that this show is about depressing subject matter. On the contrary, the show is brightly colored and swirls with emotions and spontaneity. The references made were to give an idea of “What is shown widely” and “What is not shown as widely” especially when it comes to what is representative of Japan. “Sticky, Messy, and Sweet” shows other existences and experiences contrary to the slick and commodified or cutesy beyond belief. Although some of the participants have graduated from prestigious art schools both in Japan and the United States, the others are more self-taught and could be referred to as being somewhat “Otaku,” fixated on anime or manga or on any other hobby, which in and of itself labels them to be outside the masses.
Some of the artwork in this show physically represents all three adjectives in the title; some a combination of two. Ai Tsuchikawa’s obsessive drawings filled with miniature fishy shmoo characters, rainbow flares and whirls are drawn on taped-together pieces of paper. Her installations of found objects covered in plastic “slime” epitomizes the idea of “Sticky, Messy, and Sweet.” Yui Kugimiya’s thick and goopy oil paintings cut and sectioned by colorful strands of yarn are gross and cute at the same time. Mumbleboy and Reiko Tada use craft to get sticky and messy. Gunji Yusuke uses scotch tape to put together little plastic bubbles holding drawings as if they were idea bubbles. Chie Fukao uses what is immediately around her like her own bed sheets to make an imaginary rabbit character’s resting area. Akinori Shimodaira uses simple, translucent brush strokes to create his dreamy, blurry paintings. Nao Tanabe lures the viewer with her innocent and scantily clad drawings of girls, making us feel like accomplices to the dirty old man trying to cop a feel on crowded trains.
With this show, the curator hopes to give a glimpse of another side of the Japanese psyche; one that goes beyond the polite exterior. She hopes to delve deeper and explore the more untamed.