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Resistance Is Futile

Paul Schimmel removes the odd stray hair from a canvas and straightens out misaligned panels as he leads me, room by room, piece by piece through the half-installed “© Murakami” exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. Schimmel is in his 40s and has kind eyes and droopy jowls that sit well with his youthful spirit. He’s unassuming and sweet, a posture that almost seems incongruous with his stature as chief curator of a little L.A. art outfit called MOCA.

He’s also really excited. It’s the first tour of the Takashi Murakami retrospective, which opens Monday, October 29, that Schimmel’s given. The museum has denied press previews until now. As he guides me through, Schimmel notes adjustments that need to be made, support structures to switch out — endless details to worry about — all while a cacophony of clanking hammers and whirring power tools fills the background with white noise as MOCA staffers wearing laminated badges and the unmistakable sheen of exhaustion unpack shipping crates and erect plinths. It’s my most dazzling art high yet, trumping the time I sat next to Robert Graham at a dinner party and, bored, he sculpted a pair of bunny slippers out of my crème brûlée.

We start off in a room of otaku-inspired sculptures, hypersexed, nude and disproportionate. A smiling anime hero spurts forth an impressive lasso of ejaculate, which levitates over his head in a masterful feat of physics. I encircle his counterpart, the busty, blue-haired Hiropon, who beams beneath a jump rope of her own cascade of breast milk.

“She has no vagina,” I point out.

“You’ve got good eyes, kiddo,” says Schimmel, as though no one’s ever noticed Hiropon’s missing labia.

Schimmel patiently grounds the strangely innocent-yet-pornographic work with a litany of traditional references and fine-art lingo, comparing the cum shot continuum of Cream — a two-dimensional rendering of our anime hero’s copious seed stream splattered across several canvas panels — to “a New York school gestural painting,” and pointing out that the squashed elephant at the base of Murakami’s towering Oval Buddha is “really based on classical 12th-century Kyoto-style sculpture.” And while he’s got the art-speak down, what really strikes me is his enthusiasm.

“I’m more excited than you are,” he says, leading me into the next room.

Takashi Murakami is the most influential contemporary artist on the planet. His fine art is not only found in galleries and museums around the world, it’s also emblazoned across skateboards, album covers and most of Tokyo, and mass produced as collectible toys, clothing and stationery. If you don’t frequent galleries, Japan or Giant Robot, you’re still not going to escape his imagery, which decorates all those Louis Vuitton handbags that starlets in trashy celebrity rags brandished from their bony elbows a few years back — you know, the ones with the candy-colored Ls and Vs and the sea of swirly eyeballs that went for like five thousand bucks a pop (and 50 on Santee Alley). You’ve seen his work even if you didn’t know it. It’s everywhere.

Murakami’s original paintings bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars each, and his mass-produced art products sell by the millions. He doesn’t just toe the line between art and commerce; he’s built an empire upon it. Though easily reduced by some (and you know who you are) as just “more of that Japanese cartoon crap,” what with the vapid smiling daisies and ubiquitous neon mushrooms, there’s too much behind his work to dismiss it with a superficial flick of the wrist — too much schooling and too many degrees, too much theory, too much thought, too many “posts” and “isms” around all those damn mushrooms.

What’s with the mushrooms?

I ask Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, partners in the Blum & Poe gallery, and Murakami’s L.A. gallerists since 1996. Blum, of the curly dark hair, the high cheekbones and the well-maintained red-flecked face scruff, leans back into a lint-sprinkled foam couch in the back room of their minimalist Culver City gallery, which also represents Yoshitomo Nara and Murakami protégée Chiho Aoshima. Poe joins us later (his dog was sick). He wears earth tones and a furrowed brow (his dog was sick) and reminds me of a bear — more teddy than grizzly, but less trusting and more art savvy.

“I don’t know, what do you think his mushroom obsession is?” Blum hollers to Poe, who sits behind his desk, half listening.

“It comes from the fact that he can draw mushrooms very well,” Poe says in all seriousness, rolling his desk chair closer to the couch. “He’s very confident at drawing mushrooms.”

Blum befriended Murakami immediately after seeing the artist’s seminal first show at a tiny Ginza gallery in 1991 where he debuted his notorious signboards (which, befitting any retrospective worth its prefix, are on display here). Then a doctoral candidate studying traditional Japanese art, Murakami co-opted toy manufacturer Tamiya’s corporate logo and rebranded it with his own name, Takashi, emblazoned above the company’s slogan: “First in quality around the world.”

“He was branding himself from the very beginning, and you could see it,” says Blum, warm and thoughtful despite the fact that he’s wearing all black on a scorching Saturday afternoon. “You could see the seed of what he was setting out to do.”

Branding. Commerce. Money. All these were a part of Murakami’s master plan from the get-go, a way to criticize the global culture of consumption while simultaneously basking in it and, yes, profiting from it.

Poe launches into a discourse on superflat, the theory behind Murakami’s vast and eclectic oeuvre and an essential key to understanding him beyond a reductive compendium of well-drawn mushrooms, sexy cyborgs and stuff.

The superflat movement is a uniquely Japanese undimensional approach to making and observing art that has been influenced by — here goes — a castrated postwar Japan, eccentric art, globalization, entertainment, media, commerce, anime, eroticism, pop, hierarchy (or lack thereof), the computer age and value (whew!); which is to say that what you might think are silly mushrooms are in fact, mushroom clouds, like the ones that burst forth in the wake of the atomic bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that folksy little mouse called DOB (Murakami’s Disney-esque alter ego and his first and most oft-used character) with his Mickey Mouse gloves, his Sonic the Hedgehog belly, and that silly name — abbreviated Japanese slang for “Why?” — is really a testament to consumption, an inquiry into market sustainability and an ongoing study in meaninglessness.

Murakami’s superflat movement obliterates antiquated distinctions between high and low, a Western-specific hang up, by flattening (read: eliminating) the distance between them. Under the color-splashed mushroom of superflat, there is no qualitative difference between a 12-foot sculpture and a 3-inch toy. They are equally valid statements.

“It’s like nothing is sacred, certainly not precious,” says Blum of Murakami’s approach, “which is why it flips people out in the art world.”

Warhol tackled the high/low art debate by turning mass-marketed products and pop-culture imagery into art that sold for lots of money in fancy galleries. Murakami has flipped the script by turning art that sells for lots of money in fancy galleries into products, which he then sells to the masses. Warhol had a “factory” that was little more than a crash pad for party-worn sycophants. Murakami has a factory that employs more than a hundred people and actually gets shit done.

Though the banality of consumption is a consistent through line in his work, Murakami is fully engaged in the game of commerce. The irony is the point. Culture jamming for profit.

“He blurs the line between high and low, but he does it in a way that’s not compromising,” says local pop-art surrealist Gary Baseman, himself a master marketeer. “It’s not Hello Kitty.”

Through flattening these hierarchical (nonsensical, artificial, arbitrary) values of high and low, Murakami has infiltrated every cultural medium we can imagine, including music, publishing, radio, food, fashion — the list is not quite infinite, but it is really, really long.

And he starts them young. While Murakami aims for, and hits, all demographics, his eye is on the kids.

“His ideal audience is 7-, 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds,” explains Blum, “so he can actually get into their psyche and change their worldview.”

By insinuating himself into the hearts, minds and bedsides of children the world over with plush critters that protect them from oogie-boogies that go bump in the night, Murakami earns their trust (and their parents’ dough) before they can wipe themselves.

“The 5-year-old gets attached to DOB or any of these characters and grows up with them, and sees them as one thing, but as they get older they may see that they can look at the world through different perspectives — building a critical worldview through branding,”Blum explains. “I mean, it’s a huge project that would take 40 or 50 years, but that’s how far he looks into the future.”

It all sounds like a cartoon: the diabolical aspirations of a mad scientist whose sights are set on world domination. Standing with Schimmel beneath the spectacle that is Murakami’s Tan Tan Bo Puking, I realize the comparison isn’t so far off.

Schimmel calls the painting “an exquisite tour de force,” which might sound like so much silly art-snob pablum, but still doesn’t come close to describing the magnificence of the explosive four-paneled mind bender. It is an overwhelming eruption of insane imagery and gut-wrenching emotion that amalgamates all of Murakami’s characters against a backdrop of candy-colored cosmic, psychotic, psychedelic fallout of consumption-overload-induced apocalypse.

“The most stimulating thing I find as an artist is to step into a place where no one can go,” Murakami, with the help of a translator, e-mails from Tokyo.

And he’s right: If I could climb into this color-crazed, dripping world of pain and regret and more, more, more overload, I wouldn’t. It’s too creepy. But I could stare at it for a lifetime and then some.

Murakami cites the 1992 “Helter Skelter” exhibit at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary as a profound inspiration that not only shaped his career path, but also his worldview.

“Seeing ‘Helter Skelter,’ I was shocked to realize that there was art going on in America outside of New York,” Murakami tells me.

“Helter Skelter,” featuring the artists Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon, Nancy Rubins and other local heroes, was a provocative examination of Southern California art that reflected a deeper, darker cultural angst brewing beneath L.A.’s sun-washed American dream and, as it turned out, lurking in the global psyche. It was the first show Schimmel curated for MOCA, and it was a doozy.

“[‘Helter Skelter’] just blew [Murakami] away; it blew him away because of the idea that the local, the regional, could be international,” explains Schimmel as we tiptoe around an array of whirly-eyed mushrooms laying prone, awaiting upright installation in Strange Forest — a well-known sculpture in which a gaggle of seemingly benign, though admittedly strange, mutlicolored mushrooms with their jumbled assortment of “jellyfish eyes” (Murakami’s misnomer for them; they bear no actual resemblance to the eyes of that spineless, iridescent sea monster) take on an ominous air, encircling a sickly sweet and frightened DOB.

“I felt my own ambitions stir when faced with these unheard-of ideas and huge-scale work,” says Murakami, who decided as soon as he saw the “Helter Skelter” show that he would one day work with Paul Schimmel on his own solo exhibit at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary.

“And so, before he had ever even met me,” Schimmel explains, “it was like I was on the chart. This space was on the chart.”

Which makes this retrospective a homecoming, as well as a dream come true. Plus, Hollywood, where artifice rules, commerce reigns and all the world’s eyes are focused, is one of the last frontiers he has yet to conquer. Murakami wants to make movies.

“I want to enter the film industry,” says Murakami. “I was raised on American movies and American TV. I want to explore the source of these ideas of entertainment and pure art.”

Murakami should have better luck conquering Hollywood this time around. The Blum & Poe boys had a tough time selling his work to a skittish L.A. audience, despite his kick-ass coming-out party in 1996.

“It was a great show, and we knew it,” Blum says of Murakami’s first L.A. exhibition. He’s stretched out on the couch like a cat, staring off into the shelves of stored art, nostalgic and kind of dreamy. “It was a fucking great show.”

Still, Murakami didn’t move. The market was slow, the aesthetic was “other” and collectors were slow to give up on conceptual and to embrace cute.

“I knew what I knew, but translating that and transferring it here was a totally different thing,” remembers Blum.

To help contextualize the work, they hung traditional Nihonga paintings alongside a series of deconstructed DOB pieces. In this incarnation, Murakami’s curious red, white and blue mouse, as he was squashed flat, turned inside out and tied into literal and metaphorical knots, went from silly anime character to existential inquiry.

A group of 18th-century Japanese painters called the eccentrics shared a similar structural approach in which intervening spaces were erased or unacknowledged, thus exaggerating the extreme planarity or flatness of the image. Inspired by the eccentrics, Murakami, by way of his superflat aesthetic, deconstructed traditional models of perspective, upending our preprogrammed patterns of looking at art (i.e., the world) by contradicting the rote trajectories our eyes travel across a surface. In “flattening” DOB into two-dimensional space, Murakami was luring the viewer’s eye across the canvas, instead of into it, emphasizing the individual parts over the whole.

Translated through the language of superflat, what was previously a simple, mindless confection in the form of DOB became an argument of form dancing erratically to a discordant symphony across a canvas upon which logic no longer held sway. Rules of shape, perspective and structure were obliterated by a distortion recognizable only by DOB’s palette and his telltale “jellyfish” eyes, which had multiplied and gone googly.

Murakami’s preoccupation with Japanese national identity is, for the most part, lost on a Western audience that can’t possibly relate to the oppressive shadow of Hiroshima’s mushroom cloud looming low and dark over postwar Japan. It is this shadow that has created a castrated, infantilized culture, emotionally traumatized by atomic horror. Topped off with economic collapse and the ever-watchful eye of its tormentor/protector, the big, bad United States, the Japanese have turned to manga and anime as their media of choice in the telling and retelling of their own national nightmare.

“Postwar Japan was given life and nurtured by America .?.?. we were forced into a system that does not produce adults,” Murakami has written about his superflat manifesto. Americans too have yet to evolve past a lingering adolescence systematically enforced by an incessant onslaught of distraction, including 9-to-5 slavery, processed food, reality television, celebrity obsession, Web porn and an overwhelming disconnection from nature thanks to religion, technology and “progress.” Perhaps this is why Murakami’s work resonates so strongly with Westerners who remain largely ignorant of the historical references, as well as the mythology and the wordplay that are so prevalent in his art.

And nowhere do we see this stunted growth more than in Los Angeles — the capital of artifice, consumption and distorted values, where pretty people are paid millions to pretend, while half a million of their neighbors go to sleep hungry every night; where wonderful, magical things happen every minute of every day, but go unnoticed in the wash of celebrity gossip and collective complaining; where an exaggerated chasm separates the rich from the poor, the high from the low, and where we nervously await our inevitable “flattening,” be it by way of the Big One, WWIII, alien invasion or sudden extinction of the cacao bean .?.?.

.?.?. But I digress. Why worry about the fate of our planet/species when there are purses to buy?

It was Schimmel’s idea to have a fully functioning Louis Vuitton boutique operating inside the museum. We’re standing in front of Murakami’s aforementioned signboards, which Schimmel cites as his inspiration for the shop.

“Everything became this idea of — not, in a sense of having a brand take him over, but kind of merging and sucking the heart out of a brand and mutating it and making it his own .?.?. Tamiya .?.?. Takashi .?.?. It was him stealing their identity and making it his own, which is why I felt it was so important to have this monster Louis Vuitton conglomerate somehow packed into this museum.”

The boutique has drawn a lot of criticism from hard-liners who maintain that commerce muddies the value of pure art.

“That’s okay, they’re all going to die soon,” says Baseman of the old-school art snobs who are all bunged up about the in-museum store. “I love it because it fucks with everything.”

The Louis Vuitton folks spared no expense in building their mezzanine-level MOCA enclave. It sparkles. It shines.

“This is how you can understand his work,” explains Schimmel as we stand on the threshold of the boutique’s entrance. “You can’t just show the best, the most beautiful things he’s done. You also have to see how he’s engaged in the areas of commercial culture, popular culture, luxury goods. That’s part of his identity.”

Murakami collaborated with Marc Jacobs on a new collection of handbags that will premiere at the MOCA boutique, and retail there exclusively. Rumors abound of label-loving loyals, champing at the bit for a piece and booking cross-continental flights for the sole purpose of acquiring one.

“Sure, we could set up the boutique outside, but the idea of inviting the barbarians behind the gate, put them in there and say, ‘This is the elephant in the room’ .?.?. I want the full, real experience,” says Schimmel.

And so we are left to wonder: What will these barbarians look like and how will they react? Like the child who goes to bed with her cuddly DOB, only to grow up to read into his unfocused eyes and his groping gloved hands an entirely different meaning, might the jet-setting label whore who soars across oceans to nab a new Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton catch sight of Tan Tan Bo Puking along the way and realize — gasp! — shedoesn’t need another fucking purse?

Dare to dream.

Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki Corporation actively collaborated in preparing for this exhibition, spending a veritable fortune in materials and manpower to create custom wallpaper for the galleries, animated projections for the gala and hand-woven carpet for the movie theater.

“I mean, your friggin’ carpet at home isn’t as nice as this,” cracks Schimmel.

The show is slated to be the biggest and brightest in MOCA history, with a pre-opening gala and a musical performance by Kanye West, also a Murakami collaborator. The trifecta of art, music and fashion means Hollywood will undoubtedly trickle in by way of the red carpet and the allure of photo-ops. Once again, Murakami has blasted his way into the cultural mix, L.A. style — big, bold and glamorous.

“If he does it in Los Angeles, it’s even mightier,” says Giant Robot’s Eric Nakamura. “It’s like driving the nail in even harder.”

The sound of the Rolling Stones blares from a tinny boom box in another room as Schimmel points out to me the spots where the Daruma series will hang.

In his Daruma paintings, which premiered earlier this year at a solo exhibition at New York’s Gagosian Gallery, Murakami portrays the founder of Zen Buddhism with a traditional Japanese hand, and with his own telltale jellyfish eyes. Murakami’s art has always had its share of Zen elements. And in rattling our notions of what we perceive externally, Murakami, not as artist or marketer or trickster, but as Zen guru, is asking us to question our perceptions of ourselves, to ask not only, What am I seeing? Or, How am I seeing? But, Who is seeing? And thus, we have yet another interpretation of all those eyes (all those “I”s) staring out at us from paintings and plush toys and designer handbags.

But, these Daruma paintings are a departure — intimate, grounded and overt.

“I thought, maybe it would be good for America, now living under war, to encounter this ultimate nihilism,” says Murakami, referring to the Zen notion that there is no right or wrong, everything merely is.

The sentiment is echoed in Murakami’s most recent piece, Oval Buddha, a gigantic sculpture that is pretty much obscured by long sheets of thick plastic draped over it when we come upon it. Half joking, I ask Schimmel to remove the plastic so that I can get a better look. He happily obliges.

The sculpture, a massive self-portrait crafted in aluminum and covered in several thousand sheets of platinum leaf, is an amalgamation of Humpty Dumpty — the overgrown egg who sat on a fence between warring sides, seeing all and doing nothing — and a Buddha.

As Oval Buddha, Murakami is neither devil nor deity, but artist occupying a weird and wonderful nether-region in between. His enormous head, from which frog-legged apprentices dangle, holds within its platinum-coated confines Murakami’s single-minded vision, his ambition, his foresight, his talent, his imagination, his expanded perspective, his intellect and his mojo, which has all alchemically combined to trigger a monumental explosion of influence, the breadth of which extends toward a scale arguably unmatched and unimagined for a contemporary, living, breathing artist, especially one with limited skills and a penchant for drawing morphing maniacal mice, and oh-so-many mushrooms.

“I think that artists are people who comprehend the borders between the transient world and the next world,” muses Murakami. “Or at least are trying to.”