Reading Between Figures in Yayoi Kusama's Works


At Margo Leavin Gallery, an excellent selection of mostly recent and some earlier works by Yayoi Kusama marries the relentless obsessiveness that often characterizes outsider art to the refinement and sophistication often associated with formalism. Too beautiful to be truly out of control, yet too crazy to be mere aesthetic exercises, the Tokyo-based artist's paintings and sculptures are at once edgy and heavenly.

A palette of silver and gold predominates, transforming the pristine, sky-lit gallery into a shimmering illusion that flickers out of focus when you're not concentrating on a single piece. Inflected by a wide range of icy whites that include cool blues and soft grays, and a spectrum of yellows that vary from bright, eye-popping hues to reflective sections of regal gold-leaf, the three-room installation is otherworldly and sumptuous, both dreamy and physical.

Kusama's abstract paintings of odd, all-over patterns are never quite symmetrical. Made up of thousands of tiny elements, they invite a type of viewing that shifts between close-up scrutiny and far-away gazing.

"Cosmic Door," a wall-size triptych in a rich spectrum of grays, nearly induces hallucinations as you examine its meticulously painted surface from a few inches away and then step back to try to take in an overall view of the whole. Sometimes the vertiginous canvas appears to depict a bird's-eye view of thousands of pedestrians crammed together like sardines in a can; at other times it seems to be an animated web floating weightlessly through space.

All of Kusama's paintings turn the world inside-out. Something like spatial dyslexia takes shape across their alluring surfaces.

The artist achieves this effect by painting in the ground only after she has completely finished the figures, whether dots, blobs or spheres. This technique suggests that Kusama (who lives, voluntarily, in a mental institution) sees the world in reverse--or at least feels the space between things as intensely as any object.

But the real magic of her formidable, optimistic art is that it gets viewers to see the world in this way, if only momentarily. A Kusama retrospective is planned for the L.A. County Museum of Art next year, but the 68-year-old's first solo show in Los Angeles is a pleasure that shouldn't be missed.

* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 273-0603, through Oct. 1. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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