Monday, June 26, 2017

MCA's Finely-Curated Takashi Murakami Exhibition Introduces Me, Contemporarily, to Mr. DOB, Arhats and the Concept of Superflat -- Art Review

Art Exhibit Review

Takashi Murakami
The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Thru September 24

I've repeatedly conveyed my inability to appreciate much in the way of contemporary art, at least at the museum level.

I have a number of friends I consider excellent artists, and routinely see pieces I very much like at local art fairs, so I will not say that great art is no longer being made.

And acknowledging that art--like beauty--is in the eye of the beholder, I hold all working artists in high regard, even if I may not be smitten by the resulting works. That some are able to make a good living, or even a fortune, is something I applaud, simply on principle.

But whether in the contemporary galleries of some of the world's best art museums, or at institutions specifically devoted to newish works--including Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)--I have rarely found myself enchanted.

This may well be a silly generalization, but I tend to find contemporary art heavy on gimmick and light on aesthetic allure or--per my admittedly imprecise barometer of perception--"greatness."

So although I seek out art museums on every vacation I take and get to the Art Institute of Chicago several times each year, in recent years I've generally only gone to the MCA for special exhibits or events.

The last of these, until now, was the traveling David Bowie Is exhibition in 2014, which I had originally seen in London the year before. I felt it was excellent, but a look at what else was hanging at MCA at the time reiterated my general distaste for museum-level "contemporary art."

When I first heard mention of a "Murakami exhibit" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, my mind went to the acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami. I haven't read any of his works--which include Norwegian Wood, IQ84 and Kafka on the Shore--but saw a play based on the latter and wondered if perhaps an exhibition was created to showcase striking visuals suggested in the books.

But I soon learned that the exhibit focuses on Takashi Murakami, a contemporary artist of some renown though unknown to me. (It seems he may be best known to some for designing cover artwork for Kanye West's 2008 album, Graduation.)

I took a bit of note when some art-savvy friends posted on Facebook about visiting the exhibition--officially titled Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, which comes from a Japanese saying about an octopus in distress that chews off its own leg to survive, knowing that it will regenerate--and became all the more intrigued by a Tweet sharing that Bono and the Edge got a private tour while in Chicago for a pair of U2 concerts in early June.

Appreciating that the museum is free for Illinois residents every Tuesday, I decided to take a look recently prior to carrying on to a White Sox game.

Before getting to the exhibition itself--which I found to be an excellent representation of a worthwhile artist, if not quite filled with what I'd consider phenomenal art--let me note that I am not thoroughly versed in Japanese culture.

I love the films of Akira Kurosawa and others of that realm, and found the film Spirited Away to be sensational, but am generally oblivious to anime and manga.

As noted, I haven't read Haruki Murakami though I've heard nothing but high praise, yet--largely incidentally--just prior to my MCA visit, I had read three novels by Keigo Higashino, seemingly Japan's most popular mystery writer.

So I was happy to further indoctrinate myself into the contemporary creativity of Japan, a country I hope to one day visit.

The exhibit, which is wonderfully compiled, curated and written to show how Takashi Murakami's art has developed and changed over the past 30 years, begins with a short video interview of the artist that I highly recommend all attendees view.

Via the clip, I learned that in addition to Japanese animation, Murakami was heavily influenced by "American sci-fi," predominantly Star Wars, and that one of his primary aims is to blur the line between high art and low culture.

In the spirit of merging these realms, many of Murakami's works--at least to a certain point in his oeuvre--feature a Mickey Mouse-type character dubbed Mr. DOB, as those three letters are represented in his ears and face.

Murakami has used--and in a variety of ways, morphed--Mr. DOB, from singularly dominating canvases to being rather small in a sea of color to being depicted sculpturally.  

Although I can't say the exhibition left me with a precise understanding of the term "Superflat," this is--per wall text--a theory of art Murakami coined in the late 1990s as he blended Eastern and Western artistic traditions.
"Superflat describes a world that blurs disctinctions between high art and low culture, a world that is metaphorically flattenend by the atomic bomb. Murakami explored these ideas in his mutable character Mr. DOB, which he continued to mutilate, duplicate, stretch, distort and adapt."
The video and exhibit text also explained that--following the artist's rise to widespread prominence in the early years of the new millennium, including the work with Kanye--he was, understandably, tremendously affected by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011.

This led to a series of large-scale works--aided by a vast studio staff, as chronicled in a video depicting Murakami's working methods--featuring numerous "arhats," which are Buddhist monks on their way to spiritual enlightenment, tasked with spreading understanding and healing.

In the exhibition, there is a long gallery featuring two huge arhat sculptures and giant paintings that spread the length of the room, reminding me of Monet's Water Lilies at the L'Orangerie in Paris and perhaps stylistically even more so, Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze in Vienna. (I also had perceived the influence of Lichtenstein and Warhol in the Mr. DOB pieces.)

Takashi Murakami also created a roomful of large works expressly for the MCA exhibit, with a multi-paneled painting and monumental sculpture inspired by the show's subtitle, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.

Certainly the exhibition went a long way in helping me understanding its subject's artistry, and if rating merely the exhibit's breadth, explanations and accompanying materials, I'd probably bestow @@@@@.

But while I genuinely enjoyed much of Murakami's art, I don't feel much compunction to seek out more of it.

If I were to come across a similar exhibit at some other major museum, with time allowing to peruse either it or a well-regarded permanent collection, I'd undoubtedly choose the latter.

And forgetting that they fetch a fortune, I don't think I'd opt to hang a Murakami on my walls, even if given an original.

Incidentally, one of my favorite pieces shown is among the least emblematic of the styles for which Murakami has seemingly become well-known worldwide.

Picture of a Turtle "Does It Dream of the Lindberg Star," created in 1987 when the artist was just 25, uses muted hues and--though obviously hard to make out on screen--a considerable amount of raised texture.

Call me a traditionalist, but I guess I prefer to see what I perceive as impressive technique, and perhaps aesthetic depth, rather than simply eye-catching flash.

So while I'm glad to now know of Takashi Murakami as a renowned, living, contemporary artist, and liked much of what I saw at the MCA strictly at face value, I can't say the exhibit--excellent in its own right--all that greatly abetted my appreciation of what appears to constitute museum-level fine art created in this century.

But especially for the right price, I'm glad I took a look.


1 comment:

Ken said...

Thanks! This was like a pictorial tour of the exhibit. Just remember what they said about Warhol in the early 60s....