Giant Robot Biennale 3: The Famed Asian Pop Culture Magazine Is Gone, But Its Art Still Lives, at Japanese American Museum

Big Boss Robot custom by Luke Chueh
Big Boss Robot custom by Luke Chueh
Liz Ohanesian

Inside Giant Robot Biennale 3 at Little Tokyo's Japanese American National Museum, there are rows of glass cases filled with toys. This is the Remix Project. Eighty-five artists from seven different countries, a mix of both newcomers and established custom toy artists, contributed to the effort. Blank kaiju (monster) figures by Uglydolls artist David Horvath were transformed into beasts that were alternately adorable and gruesome. Giant Robot's own Big Boss Robot toy, which, despite its name is actually quite small, was painted a myriad of colors.

In the corner of one of the display cases is a particularly significant work by Luke Chueh, the L.A.-based painter whose anthropomorphic animals have spawned his own line of figures. Chueh gave Big Boss Robot a rusty finish and a few tiny copies of the final issue of the Giant Robot's print magazine, which featured Chueh's art on the cover.

"I actually drew little messages on each of those issues," says Chueh of his piece, "like 'Luke Chueh killed Giant Robot and so did Linkin Park.'" Chueh and the band Linkin Park were both interviewed for the issue.

Sean Chao's Giant Cat Robot
Sean Chao's Giant Cat Robot
Liz Ohanesian

More than a year has passed since that last printed installment of Giant Robot hit the streets, but the magazine's commitment to exposing people to up-and-coming artists lives on Giant Robot's still-active website and gallery GR2's frequent shows and larger events like the Biennale. For more than a decade, Giant Robot included dozens of rising art stars in its "Asian pop culture and beyond" coverage. Everyone from Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara to David Choe and James Jean appeared within its pages. But what began as a zine founded in the mid-1990s by Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong evolved into something much bigger, a community of artists and art lovers.

"I really believe that Giant Robot helped promote that the fact that there is more to this scene than the Japanese Superflat artists," says Chueh, referencing artist Murakami and like-minded artists in Japan.

He stresses, "I'm really glad to be a part of that entire network of artists."

Up next: More about what's on display at the museum now


One of Albert Reyes' pieces on display at Giant Robot Biennale 3
One of Albert Reyes' pieces on display at Giant Robot Biennale 3
Liz Ohanesian

Nakamura, who owns Giant Robot and curated the Biennale, has been instrumental in promoting art in Los Angeles, whether in the form of custom toys, paintings or even video games. The third Biennale event is essentially a large-scale version of what you can find at GR2 everyday and the Remix Project is only a small portion of what's on view at the JANM through January.

The primary Biennale exhibition features artists who have a history with Giant Robot, each one offering large displays of their work. They aren't necessarily big name artists, but that's by design. Just as Giant Robot, the magazine, frequently featured artists right before they caught national and international attention, so is the Biennale.

"It puts artists that might not get that shot into the spotlight," says Nakamura of the event.

Nakamura calls the work on display this year "shy person art."

"It's kind of like the geeky kid thing," he explains. "It's not the cool graffiti guy, it's sort of the opposite of that. It's the kid who watched cartoons and drew and drew and drew. This is what they turned into."

Rob Sato's sketchbooks and supplies.
Rob Sato's sketchbooks and supplies.
Liz Ohanesian

Indeed, there's a certain obsessive quality to the work inside the Biennale. Albert Reyes built an interactive piece based on the Halloween mazes he produces in his backyard every year. Inside the spooky structure, and on the museum walls surround it, were his paintings and incredibly detailed illustrations that merge real life with pop culture fantasy. Sean Chao, who has appeared in several recent GR2 shows, created the Giant Cat Robot, which he presented in dioramas and paintings that are every bit as magical as a Miyazaki film. Rob Sato brought in years of sketchbooks to complement his finished work.

Deth P. Sun combined a couple hundred small paintings to form one massive piece that spread across multiple walls. Saelee Oh combined papercut art with paintings and plush figures to turn a corner of the museum into something akin to the most adorable bedroom on the planet.

Biennale 3 marks the beginning of a new era for Giant Robot. Nakamura notes that there is already another generation of artists who were influenced by work they saw in the magazine or at GR2. "It's scary, but awesome," he adds.

As for the future, Nakamura notes that's he's ready for "more exhibitions at a faster pace." This weekend will mark the opening of "Misty Fog's Combat Rock," a joint show from designer toy icons Le Merde and Kyoka Ikeda (Gargamel), at GR2. Beyond that, Nakamura says to look for more art exhibits and more of their popular indie video game events.

Giant Robot Biennale 3 runs at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo through January 20.

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Japanese American National Museum

100 N. Central Ave.
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