NEW YORK — Three steps into “Bye Bye Kitty!!!,” at the Japan Society in New York, a monumental 23-foot-long painting knocks the breath out of you. At first glance, “Ash Color Mountains” looks like a dreamy landscape — mountains that recall the gently rounded contours of Mount Fuji float in the mist and recede in the distance. But step closer, and you see that the mountains are made entirely of corpses, dumped helter-skelter like so much landfill.
The artist behind this massive dystopia, 45-year-old Makoto Aida, clearly didn’t mean for his sardonic dismissal of the salaryman, presented in the formal style of the scroll painting, to read as a stark evocation of the thousands lost since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. But there it is. When disaster struck the northeast coast of Japan, the artistic landscape changed along with everything else.
“Bye Bye Kitty!!!: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art” was intended to set the stage for a new generation of artists — eight men and eight women, ages 28 to 46, working at a uniformly high level in a wide range of mediums — who all reject the supercute Hello Kitty style that dominates the country’s pop culture. But in the aftermath of the natural disasters, and in the continuing unsteadiness as the world follows the updates from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the works of these artists have assumed a deeper portent.
This show was never designed to be what it has suddenly become. The premise — the rejection of the national obsession with Pikachu and those giggly girls dressed as Lolitas — seems almost inconsequential now. Joe Earle, the director of the gallery, acknowledged that the society is now offering an unexpectedly timely show full of foreboding and cultural subversion. “Imagine how it would look,” he said, “if we had something frothy and superficial now, a show of manga or anime.”
Take Aida, a stylistic chameleon, famous for flouting taboos and regularly depicting the inexpressible (in another work, a six-panel sliding screen not shown here, he paints Japanese war planes attacking New York City). Present circumstance has turned the provocateur into a poet of devastation. Many of the painters, sculptors, installation and video artists appear surprisingly comfortable in the suddenly mature setting. Their work, which fills the seven rooms of the society’s main galleries, gives clear evidence of a strong, countervailing artistic impulse to take on the nation’s deeper and darker aspects.
The exhibition also gently suggests another source of anxiety. Young artists, Japanese or not, are competitive creatures, tortured by the relative value — spiritually and economically — of their creations. Most here have spent their entire career in the shadow of Takashi Murakami, a global art-marketing Godzilla and Tokyo native who has created an art factory that makes Warhol’s model look like a lemonade stand. And his entire output — from his Louis Vuitton designs that landed on Paris Hilton’s bikini to his 18-foot platinum-plated cartoon self-portrait installed last summer in Versailles — blends the traditional and the supercute in an artistic style that acts more like a cash machine than a cultural critique.
But it scarcely matters what drove these artists to pick up a brush, a camera or a cutting tool. Two of the most skillful here, Akira Yamaguchi and Manabu Ikeda, cover vast canvases with a miniaturist’s level of detail. In “The Nine Aspects,” Yamaguchi creates a sort of samurai trailer park, with bare-legged men changing the tires of their fanciful vehicles — half horse, half motorcycle — or carting the wrecks from one derelict yard to the next. His take on modernity — two scenes of Narita International Airport — transplants the bird’s-eye perspective of the traditional woodblock print into cutaway visions of triple-decker jumbo jets (complete with fountains, hot tubs and English libraries) stuck in a holding pattern in the golden Tokyo smog. Individual figures in these carnivalesque scenes are not much bigger than the capital letter at start of this sentence, but each is sharply observed and distinct, rendered with graceful movements undiminished by the minute size.
Manabu Ikeda devotes about a year to each of his large-scale pieces, and it shows. They feel like walk-in novels — I found myself crouching for long stretches to marvel at the all-over detail. Actually they’re drawings, pen and acrylic ink on paper. Each of the three here depicts a monolithic hulk, teeming with a fantasy blend of the organic and the man-made: terraces, buildings, rope bridges, rotting nuclear reactors, woodspirits, huts, ghosts, apes, golfing ranges and podlike water capsules containing whales or turtles. The silhouettes, in sharp relief against the stark white paper, crowd the edges of the frame. Western contemporaries continue to experiment with video, but Ikeda has a found a format that feels far more cinematic, alluding to both the dark complexities of the subconscious and the impossibly dense interconnections of the modern megalopolis.
Further into the galleries, Tomoko Shioyasu provides another coup de theatre. She borrows paper-cutting techniques from the traditional decorative art form, but deploys them, in the site-specific work here, on a grand scale that suggests the movement of cosmic forces. As with the work of Ikeda and Yamaguchi, her 13-foot-long floor-to-ceiling paper scrim is painstakingly crafted, with patterns of various cutout shapes crowding into delicate webs or stretching into crisscrossing streams. A light pointing at the tracery creates a swirling shadow across the floor and opposite wall. The effect is meteorological, chillingly reminiscent of satellite photos of the oceanic whirlpool created by the Tohoko quake.
Kumi Machida, probably the most technically traditional artist in the show (she works in Japanese pigments on handmade paper), creates disturbing dreamlike images that feel like a cross between Matthew Barney and the kiddie cartoon “Speed Racer.” Androgynous children in white helmets or oddly antlered bathing caps uneasily hold onto the hand of a needy nearby adult. Machida creates her figures using strong sculptural outlines in thick sensuous black — and not much else. This spareness is a staple of cartoon animation, but Machida draws with a sureness and elegant economy that recalls sketches of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by Holbein the Younger.
There are plenty of other arresting pieces in the show — Hishashi Tenmyouya’s tattooed warriors riding armored lions and cranes, Chiharu Shiota’s wedding dress sculpture riddled with plastic tubes snaking through the gallery pumping blood-colored liquid. It’s likely the highlights of the show would change from one visit to the next, depending on the latest headlines. But, really, the show is less about Hello Kitty and the cult of supercuteness than about reasserting the relevance of an anxiety that has always been present in Japanese art — it’s no coincidence that the country’s most famous art work, Hokusai’s “The Great Wave of Kanagawa,” portrays a cresting wave that dwarfs two boats in the foreground and a faraway mountain. Judging from the darker currents on display at the Japan Society, the new generation of artists appears more than equipped to deal with the fallout.
Conley is a freelance writer.
Through June 12 at the Japan Society Gallery. 333 East 47th St., New York City. 212-832-1155. www.japansociety.org