Murakami @ Gagosian

March 20, 2019

In what is a shockingly self-reflexive but nonetheless commercial exhibition, Japanese pop maestro and central force of the Superflat movement, Takashi Murakami probes life, art and transactional reality in GYATEI² at Gagosian in Beverly Hills.

The exhibition is, in one sense, classic Murakami. The show features lots of flower paintings and gilded or metallic sculptures that are pure extensions of the now highly commodified and lucrative Murakami brand.

Not lacking Murakami’s signature bright colors, bold flowers, cartoon alter egos and nods to Japanese art history’s tropes and traps, the show also features a new series of “Chat Paintings,” which pair typical Murakami visual anime-like culture with speech bubbles filled with deceptively significant rainbow-colored ruminations.   At the same time, GYATEI² represents a shift, or at least the beginnings of one, as Murakami reflects on his role as a 2D artist and creator in the Internet age and he grapples with his own life, his own choices, his own legacy, and, ultimately, his own mortality.

The show’s title stems from the Buddhist Heart Sutra, Hannya Shingo, an oft recited Zen incantation.

The Heart Sutra inclusion just might be a plea to spiritual history or an attempt to gain legitimacy. Or, perhaps, it is no more than pandering to a weighty religious theme. It might even be a random notion that has only a slight relation with the rest of the work on display.

Murakami, himself, acknowledges this rather tenuous connection in a particularly existential moment in one of his chat box paintings. We can see Murakami struggling with his own mortality, and his arrival at a classic turning point in human self-reflection, always marked by ennui, is ever-present in his chat box diatribes, as shown in the close-up below.

I admit I do admire Murakami’s awareness of Instagram’s effect on contemporary visual culture and I commend how he has brought the image sharing platform into the conversation of his work. In one chat box painting, while talking about his own use, and sometimes obsessing with Instagram, Murakami, somewhat profoundly, points out the absurdity of social media as it relates to fake news: “Rather than getting upset about fake news, I find the essence of human life, the center of its pointless, empty space, embodied in Instagram.”

Visually, here too, Murakami’s use of emojis appears novel and fun. Emojis, from the standard keyboard and even a few Murakami trademark flowers, pop up time and again amidst the paintings – a sweating face emoji here, a lightning bolt there, a face palm at the end of a speech bubble. Murakami has even created his own line of emojis with his signature flower, a lighter, more fun moment to balance out some of the show’s more heavy themes.

The only painting that seems somewhat out of sync with the rest of the exhibition is the work entitled Qinghua, an enormously long canvass, stretching fifty eight feet wide and eight feet high, that, in a rusted blue and green, depicts Chinese-style fish and a marine scene popular with Yuan dynasty artisans. Though the work is sprawling, and would fit nicely into an Abu Dhabi hotel lobby or corporate art collection, it seems disconnected. I would have preferred a greater focus on the chat series, which offer the viewer not only a splash of color and a modicum of food for thought, but also a very personal window in the profound but utterly human mind of Mr. Murakami. This is a good future avenue for Murakami, methinks.

All in all, the show presents a noted contrast between bright happy colors, flowers and emojis, and a more serious, yet subtle, meditation on life, art  and mortality … via these chats. Once again, Murakami proves to be both flat and fun and, now, very multi-dimensional. And the show will likely sell well, which, as some would say, is the entrepreneurial experience that is central to Murakami’s work … sure to make the art-factory-as-machine and the coffers of Gagosian quite happy as well.

Some images via Gagosian