The culture of cute is having a moment — more than 100 of them.
Inside downtown Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum, the unofficial U.S. ambassador of Asian pop culture, Giant Robot founder Eric Nakamura, hovers over his empire of little people — some 100 charismatic misfits clustered in Plexiglas cases.
There’s the cheery, hot-pink monster head atop an armored tank, the grimacing caramel-colored ogre with horns and the Native American robotic beast in a fuzzy bear hat. Not to mention the bug-eyed, blue octopus skewering its neon-scarlet brain with a fork. That these custom vinyl figures are being showcased so seriously in a museum setting puts an elastic grin on Nakamura’s face.
“A figure show, toys, are never presented in a space like this,” he says. “It usually happens in a shop on Melrose, on a shelf. I wanted to give them a bigger stage.”
It’s just days before the Sunday closing of Giant Robot Biennale 3 and Nakamura, perhaps a bit misty-eyed over that fact, talks fast and animatedly as we race through the show’s two galleries on a private tour.
For Project Remix portion of the exhibition, 85 artists from seven countries re-sculpted and painted vinyl figures from Ugly Doll creator David Horvath; each radically new rendition speaks to the artist’s own idiosyncratic vision. Nakamura geeks out over the tiniest details. He leans over the case, lowering his face and squinting his eyes, pointing out the hand-attached robot arms on one figure, the glossy Cyclops eye on another.
“I didn’t used to, but I now see all this as art,” he says. “It’s evolved. Artists are coming up with higher concepts; they’re sculpting and reimagining. I wanted to put these figures on a high pedestal, in a case, as if they’re diamonds, King Tut’s jewels.”
Indeed, the cute aesthetic in Ugly Dolls, Hello Kitty stationery, vinyl toys and the pointy-toothed Domo-kun character on T-shirts, mugs and key chains, which Nakamura helped move into the mainstream through his Giant Robot stores and magazine, may be growing up along with Nakamura. He curated all three biennales.
His Giant Robot magazine, now digital, and the Giant Robot website and West L.A. store are still interactive hubs of counterintuitive cool and kawaii,or Japanese cute, products. But Nakamura is becoming increasingly interested in fine art. Last year, he remodeled his Sawtelle Boulevard gallery, GR2, and moved all of the commercial merchandise to the original Giant Robot shop — or as he puts it, “the superstore across the street.” At GR2, Nakamura puts up new shows at a rapid-fire pace, nearly every three weeks, of sometimes absurdly affordable art. It’s an otaku (obsessive-like cultural passions) approach to fine art.
At the same time, the culture of cute itself is changing — economically as well as aesthetically and culturally. The Japan-centric vinyl toy craze is now more U.S.-based in its popularity, Nakamura says, and some big Japanese companies have taken to hiring American and Japanese indie artists and designers to create vinyl figurines or reinvent iconic characters. These are often designed with a more arty, hip spin. Like the urban version of Godzilla, by Japanese designer Touma, which Nakamura stumbled upon not too long ago at a Toys R Us store.
“Godzilla is usually tall, with thin arms; this one is chunkier, funkier,” he says. “Maybe it’s a search to reinvent the characters and make them more modern.”
Nakamura has also noticed that in a post-Tohoku earthquake Japan and still-struggling economy, there is simply less cool stuff to import to his store these days. Nakamura, who grew up in West L.A., used to find a lot of fresh products and new, quirky characters on T-shirts, pens, cellphone charms and more on regular scouting trips to Japan. But as of about three years ago, he says, the supply slowed noticeably.
“Cute is a little bit of a mess right now. I’d go in 2009, and see the same product lines and characters a year later. It was a bummer,” he says. “There’s also a rehash of popular, classic characters.”
This pop drought dovetailed with Nakamura’s shifting interest in unearthing and showcasing emerging fine artists. He typically discovers them at art fairs, such as Takashi Murakami’s Tokyo-based Geisai, as well as online and through friends. The fact that the art he’s drawn to often has intrinsically pop, Giant Robot-like aspects gives his otaku empire cohesion between the store, website and gallery.
One painting in the latest biennale, by Japanese artist Masakatsu Sashie, hangs above an installation of a toy model-maker’s workspace; the oil painting is embedded with video game-style symbols. Cambodian American artist Deth P. Sun’s 360 tiny, whimsical paintings, featuring an adorable if sometimes haunted cartoon-like cat, are elaborately hung in an interlocked pattern across a 48-foot-long wall. Even Japanese American painter Rob Sato, whose absurdist, muted watercolors are more museum than Munky King, depicts both Asian history and robots. The artist even displayed a decade’s worth of personal sketchbooks at the biennale, lending his exhibit an obsessive, nerded-out quality.
Nakamura says that his trips to Japan and the culture he took in there — experiences he couldn’t resell — inspired the detailed, three-dimensional stagings for the biennale. In Tokyo he visited “maid cafes” and ate from hot ramen vending machines and at “train-geek curry restaurants.”
“It was more the vibe of it all for me, how unified the ideas are, how obsessive things can be,” he says. “I’d use that energy to make an idea solid. I’d take the extra step and really geek it out.”
As a result, the current biennale, with exhibits like Albert Reyes’ life-size, haunted maze, is far more interactive and installation-oriented than the first two shows in 2007 and 2009. Those focused more on wall art. The show is also more digital, with artist-designed video games as well as an interactive Twitter display by artist Zach Gage. Thought bubbles filled with live Tweets are projected onto a wall above a bench on which guests of the exhibit can rest.
“Before,” Nakamura says, “I couldn’t bear the idea of wasting wall space on this type of digital stuff; I thought I had to show paintings. But now I think it’s the most current art possible, using technology in real time.”
For the biennale’s closing reception on Thursday, the museum will stay open late, the band White Dove will perform and artists from the show will be on hand to mingle with the public.
On Saturday, Sato will hold a hands-on watercolor workshop at the museum, demonstrating his “liquid frisket” technique; there will also be an afternoon panel discussion about Project Remix’s customized vinyl toys featuring Nakamura as well as Horvath, Scott Tolleson, Yoskay Yamamoto and L.A. painter Luke Chueh.
Speaking to the contagious virility of the cute culture that Giant Robot has built its brand around, Nakamura pauses under an exit sign and pulls out a flier from his jacket for an upcoming show at the museum. Titled “Supernatural,” the show is part of the museum’s Salon Pop Series, focusing on Asian American youth culture. Among the featured artists are Audrey Kawasaki and Edwin Ushiro, both artists Nakamura has worked with at Giant Robot, a sponsor of the show.
Among the featured artists are Audrey Kawasaki and Edwin Ushiro, both artists Nakamura has worked with at Giant Robot.
“They wouldn’t have shown art that looked like this five years ago,” Nakamura says, pleased that the museum seems to have been influenced by his aesthetic.
“Giant Robot has shown us that there’s an audience for this kind of work — that we can do both the historical stuff and the more fun, modern stuff at the intersection of art and pop culture,” says Koji Sakai, the museum’s Program Manager.
“See,” Nakamura says, “there’s ongoing crossover — it’s all interconnected.”
— Deborah Vankin
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