BASED on his work from the past dozen years, you might expect Takashi Murakami to be the illegitimate love child of Tinky Winky and Minnie Mouse, as home-schooled in Amida Buddhism. Or maybe the test-tube spawn of E.T. and Little Annie Fanny, given to unexpected scholarly interest in the erudite traditions of Japanese screens and scrolls.
He’s neither, of course. But Murakami’s art jumbles manga with Nihonga -- postwar Japanese comic books and prewar paintings that synthesize a dense array of traditional Japanese techniques and motifs. His sprawling mid-career survey, opening today at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, is awash in sculptural androids, CinemaScope paintings, ethereal video animations and lavish merchandise.
Certainly it’s fitting that the Tokyo-based artist, 45, is having his retrospective in a Little Tokyo museum. A psychologically conflicted relationship between East and West, especially Japanese and American culture, is pivotal to both manga and Nihonga. It’s the tuning fork that sets the constant pitch for Murakami’s art.
Take “Miss ko2.” This sleekly painted fiberglass figure is the Jetsons’ version of a pleasure-house geisha, by way of Hooters restaurant. It may be one of the creepiest artist’s dolls since German Surrealist Hans Bellmer lovingly cobbled together some flax fiber, plaster, wooden ball joints and glue in 1934, so he could take dirty photographs. (The creepiest of all is Charles Ray’s big mama fashion mannequin, “Fall ’91,” which may have directly inspired Murakami.)
The Playboy Bunny-like waitress, dressed in a miniskirt and cherry red high heels, holds out a welcoming hand at the show’s entrance. She’s here to serve paying customers a giant pair of pneumatic breasts, impossibly extruded limbs and an adolescent aura of wide-eyed innocence, all tied up in a bow atop cascading blond tresses.
Did I mention that “Miss ko2" is also larger than life? Like Ray’s Vogue magazine dominatrix sculpture, Murakami’s stands 8 feet tall. Male Surrealists like Bellmer idealized the child-woman as a fantasy muse, capable of dismantling rational forces. But not Murakami. His art appears resigned to global culture’s truly monumental irrationality.
Nihonga, which he studied from 1986 to 1993 as a university doctoral candidate, was a stiff reaction against Western influence on hitherto cloistered Japan. It emerged at the Modern era’s start, fusing sometimes-contradictory traditions and techniques in an improbable quest to assert the “Japanese-ness” of Japanese art.
Manga, by contrast, was partly fueled by the lengthy post-1945 U.S. occupation of Japan. Young American G.I.s imported the boisterous artifacts of popular culture by the ton.
These two threads are tightly knotted throughout the show. Ninety-six paintings, sculptures, animations and other works have been assembled, all but six made since 1995. There’s also a display of about 500 commercial trinkets -- T-shirts, plush toys, postcards, coffee mugs, paperweights, ad nauseam and absurdum -- produced by his company, Kaikai Kiki Corp.
Fantastic myths and legends find contemporary form in candy-colored works whose forced cheerfulness can, in this colossal quantity, become wearing. Halfway through the show, when I entered a raucously floral-wallpapered room filled with floral paintings bursting with the same smiling flowers and dominated by a topiary sculpture whose flowery tendrils reached 13 feet into the air, my teeth began to hurt.
Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups, it’s a bit like eating a whole box of See’s candy for lunch.
I suspect, though, that nausea is part of what Murakami is after. The demotic hysteria of commercial culture infects everything now, including once-sober political discourse. It’s our global patois.
“Tan Tan Bo Puking -- a.k.a. Gero Tan” is a mural-size, multi-panel painting in flat, bright colors that shows an engorged cartoon monster spewing buckets-full of rainbow pigment through jagged teeth. Tiepolo clouds billow lightly in the azure sky. Like a Japanese Saturn devouring his children, destroying the future in order to protect himself from being supplanted by them, Gero Tan’s repulsive feast produces magnificent art.
Murakami has spoken about the kudzu-like proliferation of ultra-cute imagery in Japanese culture -- Hello Kitty, say -- as a colossal index of repressed confidence in the wake of a militaristic nation’s humiliating battlefield defeat 62 years ago. Even death now seems infantilized, as in his remarkable paintings of a skeleton whose mushroom-cloud shape is horribly adorable.
The conceptual debt to Andy Warhol, here and everywhere in the show, is obvious. But the squeamishness induced by Murakami’s distinctive brand of Pop Art is entirely different.
And I emphasize brand. Murakami is the first major artist, Eastern or Western, to make our pervasive culture of branding a primary subject, rather than simply exploiting it.
Pop Art endures. Murakami was born the year Warhol painted his first Campbell’s soup can and Edward Ruscha drew his 20th Century Fox logo. Jim Isermann resurrected the stylized flower motif in 1986, when Murakami was an undergraduate, while Jeff Koons was casting an inflatable dime-store bunny rabbit in pristine stainless steel. Layer upon layer is feasted on in this show; no wonder Gero Tan barfs.
The show is unambiguously titled “Copyright Murakami.” The copyright symbol reads as a defiant, paradoxical assertion that the artist -- not the private collector or public museum -- retains perpetual ownership of the art-idea. That’s something we need to hear, especially as the mindless hand-wringing over today’s art market escalates faster than most stock portfolios.
In capitalist society, art objects are a species of money, not a consumable commodity (as they’re often mistakenly purported to be). Art is a medium of exchange, but artists establish its enduring value -- not some hedge-fund gazillionaire with a shopping list.
The claim gets reasserted in the show’s newest work, recently completed and never before exhibited (although anticipated in a small figure drawn at the bottom of the mural-size Gero Tan painting). A Buddha-like self-portrait of Murakami is seated atop a lotus, riding on the back of a mythical beast, like Elizabeth “Cleopatra” Taylor entering Rome astride a colossal Sphinx.
Formed in aluminum and more than 18 feet tall, the silvery sculpture is covered in platinum leaf. It’s the world’s biggest bowling trophy -- an Oscar®™ the artist awards to himself.
Japanese life being filled with spirits, Murakami’s art might be seen as visualizing the ferocious ghosts in the digital machinery of contemporary commercial culture.
So let’s turn now to the Louis Vuitton boutique.
A nonsensical tempest erupted in the art-world teapot in August, when it was learned that the show would include a deluxe, fully staffed LV store, selling pricey Murakami handbags specially designed in collaboration with Marc Jacobs. Not an adjunct but constructed inside the exhibition, the mezzanine gallery is just beyond a room of beautiful Nihonga-cum-manga paintings and overlooking the platinum Buddha. MOCA took scrupulous care not to receive rental fees or profits from the shop, which would jeopardize the museum’s nonprofit independence.
What’s actually cheesy is the “Dear MOCA Members” letter from LV’s Jacobs, filling Page 3 of the museum’s quarterly magazine and mostly just a pretentious ad. But the show “focuses on [Murakami’s] work and how it functions in the world,” as MOCA curator Paul Schimmel sensibly writes in the thick catalog, and that’s more than enough justification for including the store. Think of it as a ready-made sculpture, expanded to 21st century dimensions.
When French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp developed the ready-made concept nearly a century ago, he simply shifted industrially manufactured objects -- a urinal, a snow shovel -- from the hardware store to the art museum. The boutique does the same, now moving an entire commercial apparatus inside.
At MOCA, the artist’s multicolored “LV” on handbags is to Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” what HGTV is to Home and Garden Television. “LOVE” was originally commissioned as a 1965 Christmas card by the Museum of Modern Art and only later consecrated as art in paintings, prints and sculptures.
Murakami wrapped the sleek store in a lush video animation of flowers -- cheery cartoon chrysanthemums, an infantilized symbol of imperial Japan. They proliferate across the facade like a jungle, reclaiming civilization’s magnificent ruins.
Where: The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: Feb. 11
Price: $8, free 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays
Contact: (213) 626-6222 or www.moca.org