Kawaii, Japan's culture of cartoon-featured, schoolgirl-uniformed infantilizing cuteness, has achieved such hegemony over the country's contemporary art scene that even its best-known purveyors often employ it to self-destructive ends. The 16 artists in Japan Society's excellent exhibition Bye Bye Kitty!!! (through June 12)—only one of whom, Yoshimoto Nara, is over 50—find different ways out of the constricting aesthetic, the most consistent being lurid violence, poaching from Japanese art history, obsessive detailing and perversions of nature.
All four are present in the show's astounding opening work, Makoto Aida's 10 by 23 feet painting "Ash Color Mountains" (2009-10), which from a distance it suggests. But its gray mountains are actually piles of thousands of dead businessmen slumped amidst their office equipment. Aida's painting articulates a darkly comic cynicism towards life as a corporate cog and, like several works on view, seems eerily prescient of scenes from Japan's earthquake- and tsunami-devastated regions. Similarly so with Manabu Ikeda's absurdly complex pen drawing of a rocky, perched, Dark City-like metropolis traversed by murky rivers, "Ark" (2005), and Tomoko Shioyasu's stunning ceiling-hung 15-foot-wide paper cut-out "Vortex" (2011), its thousands of scalpel incisions suggesting a churning wave of light.
Curator David Elliott balances the obsessive-compulsive tendencies in such works with subtler, more personal pieces. Kumi Machida employs the certified nihonga style with traditional pigments on handmade paper, but her melancholic paintings of subtly mutated children have a dystopic, futuristic quality, with thick, black, Pop art lines and an off-white palette. Is this what happens to kids whose parents practice kawaii? The wispy female figures in Tomoko Kashiki's strange, beautiful paintings suggest a more advanced stage of alienation, their elongated, twisting bodies melting into mirage-like settings. Miwa Yanagi deploys distorted bodies to more explicitly feminist ends in her "My Grandmothers" photo series, in which four young women don elaborate makeup and costumes to perform how they imagine themselves in 50 years. None envisions the likeliest, outcomes, but only one is wholly optimistic.
Unease and fear pervade much of the work, albeit often offset by humor and an infectious sense of wonder. In many pieces one gets the uneasy sense "that something terrible is about to happen," Elliott noted during a preview, and each artist is trying to figure out "how to survive." Whereas practitioners of the culture of cute retreat from such apprehensions, Japan's younger artists find answers in gloomy futurism and retrofitted historical fantasy.
A New Generation of Japanese Artists Transcends the Culture of Cuteness
Japan Society's Bye Bye Kitty!!! includes many incredibly complex, luridly violent and disquietingly subtle works by young artists throwing off the conventions of kawaii.