Like so many of his peers, Takashi Murakami embodies the role of the artist as pop-culture connoisseur, the somewhat more rabid, and creative, varieties of which go by the name of otaku in his native Japan. The otaku are a kind of superconsumer whose particular expertise in their chosen object, be it comics or computer games, has occasioned a crossover into the realm of production. Accordingly, Murakami has based his art on such novelty items as those trendy little schoolkid backpacks, a popular hug-me doll from the '60s and, most famous, a beaming cartoon rodent named Mr. DOB. An exacting hybrid of Disney and manga comics aesthetics, this hyperinnocuous emblem has graced numerous paintings, T-shirts and balloons, always radiating a generic good cheer. More recently, however, Murakami's Mr. DOB has undergone a sinister, bad-trip mutation, his too-cute features proliferating whole constellations of googly-eyes and grins, teeth now tapering to lethal points. As though a roiling id underworld has risen up to the idealized surface of the cartoon, an incremental metamorphosis paves the way to the overtly psychosexual concerns of Murakami's latest work.
The installation currently on view at Blum & Poe mines the same manga/anime terrain as before, but here the outcome takes shape as two life-size cast-fiberglass models: an established female superhero known as Hiropon and her male counterpart, both wearing their stylized cartoon heads atop nude, anatomically “correct” bodies. The former grips her hugely distended, almost phallic nipples in each hand, emitting a jet of milk that loops magically behind her back like a jump rope; the latter spurts a frothy lasso from his erect penis that twists above him in an elaborate curlicue. Facing each other across the room, these figures appear completely absorbed in their separate worlds of self-pleasuring play.
One might be inclined to put these kinky shenanigans down to a David Lynch-style perversion of normalcy if the source material weren't already so perverted to begin with. As the Ero-Pop exhibition that Murakami curated earlier this spring at George's Gallery made clear, the real inspiration for these figures is the secondhand work of the manga fans themselves, whose homemade variants of the “official” comics generally showcase a more hardcore narrative imagination. Indeed, the artist has shown his own work at the enormously pop-ular conventions where the otaku hawk their wares, thereby drawing a very real parallel between the realm of high art and that of everyday masturbatory daydreaming.
In lesser hands such revelations have become all too familiar, but Murakami strains his trashy enthusiasms through a complex art-historical matrix, drawing all sorts of surprising analogies along the way. This unexpected referential richness is made especially evident in the show's painterly component: a pair of movie-screen-scaled canvases, color-coded pink and turquoise to function as gendered backdrops for his pseudo-heroic statuary, and again depicting two baroquely rippling sprays of milk and jizz. Rendered with an icy, crystalline precision, these massive frozen cum shots are absurdly beautiful. Like Edward Ruscha's “liquid word” series, they perform an elegant representational upending of expressive gesture, but without any of the faux populism that has become the hallmark of postmodern painting. There, the goal of debasing art's loftiest aspirations through negative association with low pop has only served, in the end, to reinforce separation. Murakami's project seems much more about charting various aesthetic and philosophical continuities between the one world and the other. Recalling 16th-century Japanese woodcuts as much as the latest installment of the Akira saga, his joyful streams locate a sense of the sublime within even the most outlandish and juvenile sorts of sexual fantasy.
TAKASHI MURAKAMI: “Back Beat” At BLUM & POE GALLERY, 2042 Broadway, Santa Monica. Through August 1.