Artist Misha on the Balance Between Pop Culture Tributes and Original Characters in Her Art
Liz OhanesianMisha in her studio
Misha's latest batch of spooky girls are taking shape inside her studio, just in time for Thursday's K-Town Art Walk, where she'll be the featured artist at Agit Gallery. The East Hollywood-based artists refers to her girls as Kowai Kawaii Yokai. The first two words are Japanese for "scary" and "cute," respectively. Yokai are a variety of creatures who turn up repeatedly in Japanese tales. Misha's own yokai appear in a variety of human-esque forms. One has tentacles cascading down her shoulders in place of a head of hair. Another appears to be part human, part fox. A third coils around a tree branch like a snake.
Kowai Kawaii Yokai dominate Misha's work. These are the characters you'll see in her jewelry line and in the small paintings that she sells online. She's talking about eventually creating an alternate vision of Los Angeles, where yokai roam the street, and has even sketched out a few characters for the future project. As much as Kowai Kawaii Yokai are a part of Misha's identity as an artist, they aren't necessarily her best known work. Instead, you might recognize Misha's name from a number of quirky takes on pop culture phenomena, from The Big Lebowski to Doctor Who.
Liz OhanesianOne of Misha's recent Kowai Kawaii Yokai pieces
Frequently, on weekends in Los Angeles, you'll find an artistic tribute to something that already exists, be it a film franchise, TV show, comic book character or video game. The shows will bring in large crowds that go beyond the usual art scene. Fanboys and fangirls will line up before galleries open to catch a glimpse of unusual takes on familiar characters. They'll race to score limited edition prints. Those who can afford it will plop down hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars for the originals. For local artists, both up-and-comers and established ones, tribute shows have been great for exposure.
Misha is one of many who have seen the benefits of such events. She estimates that her work has appeared in between 20 and 30 such group shows over the past few years. Most recently, she contributed a piece called My Date with the Doctor to the "Geeky Glamorous" event at JapanLA. In the Doctor Who homage, a young woman dressed in a take on Matt Smith's Doctor costume wipes tears from her eyes as she sits on a sofa that resembles a Dalek.
Shows like these can be good for business. "They definitely move faster," says Misha of the pop culture paintings, in comparison to her regular work. They tend to garner a lot of attention online as well and that's something that can also translate into sales. Whether or not these types of homage manage to capture a wide audience is dependent on a lot of factors. The biggest one, of course, is what entertainment properties you're referencing.
Liz OhanesianMy Date with the Doctor from "Geeky Glamorous" at JapanLA
"It's the Star Wars stuff that's going to get the bigger bang. It's the Nintendo. It's the video game stuff that's going to get the biggest push [rather] than an obscure TV show that maybe me and another 500 people watched," she explains.
There's a flipside to this argument as well. Misha notes that, even if the fan community for a certain show is rather small, the pieces can still garner a lot of excitement. It's just contained to a very small niche.
Three years ago, photographer Shannon Cottrell and I stopped by Misha's studio. We talked about her love of Hello Kitty and anime franchise Ghost in the Shell. Then she pulled out a few paintings she had from a previous show. They were Super Mario Bros./Star Wars mash-ups. We fell for them. So did a lot of readers. The images Princess Peach in a Slave Leia outfit and Luigi frozen in carbonite became pretty popular. "I actually got some really positive responses," says Misha of the paintings. Eventually, she sold some of that work to a customer in Dubai.
The attention that Misha gets from the pop culture pieces has gone beyond selling her contributions to various shows. One couple flipped over her mash-ups and commissioned her to paint a portrait of them Addams Family style. Currently, Misha is working on another commission for a woman who caught wind of a My Little Pony piece she did.
Artists like Misha must follow a careful balancing act of paying homage to entertainment greats while not losing site of their own visions. It takes some practice. "I was doing a lot of plugging in images into images that already existed," says Misha of her early gallery pieces. She parodied The Last Supper and other great works a few times, each one with a different cast of famed characters. "It was fun playing with The Last Supper," says Misha. "It's fun to pop culture reference the Mona Lisa, but after a while, if that's all you do, you're a one trick pony."
Over time, though, Misha's tribute pieces have come to resemble her personal work more and more. In the case of her Doctor Who piece for "Geeky Glamorous," her style and references to the source material meld seamlessly. The tribute shows are a small corner of the L.A. art scene that she still loves. "I never get sick of someone saying, here's a theme because I want to see what everyone else does with the same thing that I'm doing," says Misha.
Ultimately, tribute shows have played a pretty big role in exposing L.A. to Misha's art, beyond the hyper-referential realm of tribute shows. Her original characters are certainly growing in popularity, with her prints selling well at Little Tokyo children's clothing shop, Monkeypants. Turns out Misha's work is popular with pre-teen girls. Then there's Thursday night's show, which the artist hopes will help introduce her work to a new crowd in a different neighborhood from where she normally shows.
Misha says she still has some personal tributes she wants to accomplish too. One day, when she has the time, she'll get around to pieces based on Firefly and Farscape that have been ruminating in her head. Until then, check out her Kowai Kawaii Yokai paintings at Agit Gallery for Agitation Station at K-Town Art Walk on Thursday night.
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