Karrie Jacobs


March 17, 2011

Bye Bye Kitty?

Vortex by Tomoko Shioyasu, at the Japan Society

Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art, which opens tomorrow at the Japan Society, was intended by curator David Elliott (former director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum) as a refutation of “kawaii,” the Japanese penchant for all things cute that is best represented by Sanrio  megastar, Hello Kitty.  Indeed, the press release declares: “Cuteness Gives Way to Darker, More Disorienting World Views.”

No kidding.  What might have been just another curatorial conceit a week ago, now has an eerie resonance.  And it’s not just the title.  The show opens with an epic painting by Makato Aida called “Ash Color Mountains” which shows a rolling landscape made up of the corpses of salarymen.   And one of the most astonishing pieces in the show, a cut paper mural by Tomoko Shioyasu, is called “Vortex” (see above) and can be viewed as a giant wave.

Speaking as an occasional scholar of  Kitty (I have been known to dispatch my SVA D-Crit students to the Hello Kitty store on 42nd Street),  the works on display don’t strike me  as a repudiation of her cuteness.  Rather, they are more a rebuke to her simplistic style.  Hello Kitty can be regarded as the world’s best selling work of minimalism.  As Charlie Haas wrote in his definitive 1980 New West Magazine article about Hello Kitty:

The Mona Lisa is a hundred times easier to divine:  Her smile teases, sure but it is a smile.  Hello Kitty has no mouth.

Bye Bye Kitty includes some of the most maximalist, obsessively detailed works of art I’ve ever seen.  Yamaguchi Akira’s dense representations of Narita Airport and Manabu Ikeda‘s attempts to put the entire history of civilization on canvas hint at nothing.  There is more information on those canvases than any viewer not under the influence of very good mescaline could possibly take in.

It’s a terrific exhibition, worth the trek to the far east (47th St. and First Ave.), but I’m not sure that Elliott has succeeded in undoing cuteness.  Although perhaps the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster will.  After last night’s Bye Bye Kitty!!! opening, I stopped in at the Nohre Haime Gallery near 57th St. for the opening of an exhibition by Hugo Bastidas, huge, mind-boggling,  photo-realistic images painted in gorgeous black and white.   I was telling my friend, artist Elizabeth Demaray (who is, among other things, Hugo’s wife) about Bye Bye Kitty!!!.  She speculated that, just as we refuted irony in the wake of 9/11, the Japanese might respond to their disaster by renouncing cuteness.  Maybe.  But, as I recall, the death of irony was short-lived.  Cuteness, I suspect, will be every bit as resilient.

Cuteness triumphant: Hello Kitty by Tom Sachs at Lever House, 2008.

P.S. The Japan Society will donate half the amount they collect from ticket sales (for Bye Bye Kitty and all their other events) until June 30 to the Society’s Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.