Takashi Murakami is no stranger to Los Angeles. Just last week, his first feature film, Jellyfish Eyes, premiered at LACMA. Back in 2008, the traveling show “© Murakami” landed at MOCA — the largest and most-hyped of his numerous shows in L.A.
He's certainly a familiar figure at Blum & Poe. Saturday night saw the opening of “Arhat,” the famed Japanese artist's sixth solo show at the Culver City gallery.
As recognizable as Murakami is, there is still a sense of mystery evident when entering the show. Part of that is by design. Once you walk inside Blum & Poe, you have to head down a stark white corridor that seems longer than it might actually be. It can be a lonely trek. On Saturday night, I thought I had wandered into the wrong building. The walls were empty, the hallway was largely free of people. All that changed when I hit the first of four rooms that housed the collection.
The first subgallery was teeming with people. There were the young people who looked like they stepped out of a street fashion blog, all brightly colored hair and unexpected clothing choices. There were the well-heeled Angelenos who appeared as though they knew this gallery world inside-out. There were even a few small children staring at pieces much bigger than even the grown-ups surrounding them.
The paintings in this first room are grand — a single work nearly fills a large wall. A statue, Flame of Desire — Gold, stands at over 15 feet. Size is the first thing that catches the eye, but it's the detail of these mammoth pieces that kept onlookers staring. It portrays monks who are withering with time, but their hunched frames still loomed over the crowd. They are as reminiscent of tradition as they are walking into a bold present. Zoom in on a portion of these paintings and you'll see fleck of glitter floating around one character's head. You'll notice the polka dots and other design intricacies that lay behind the scene.
Further along in the show, the pieces grow smaller, but no less intriguing. In the second gallery, four paintings — two titled Skulls & Flowers and two more titled Death & Rebirth — play with the happy, blooming flower motif that has become, more or less, Murakami's calling card. Here the flowers mix with skulls, part of a life-and-death or transformation theme that seemed to be driving the collection. The images overlap. Skulls top petals. Petals top skulls. It's in these paintings that the Superflat aesthetic, which Murakami propelled into popularity, is most evident in a literal way. But, as flat as the painting appears, it's also textured, as though they were vinyl stickers layered one upon the other. You can't help but wonder what lies beneath the exterior.
In the third subgallery, Murakami returns to the lives of the monks. Here the pieces are much smaller than those that open the exhibition, but they are no less detailed, and no less whimsical.
The most intriguing work in the show, though, is the set of Murakami's self-portraits that serves as a finale. The art superstar appears more like a manga character accompanied by adorable mascot-like figures. In the self-portraits, Murakami stands atop a pile of skulls. All this leads to the room's centerpiece, the statue Naked Self-Portrait with Pom. In the statue, Murakami lays asleep, a dog next to him. With the skulls of the nearby paintings staring at us, though, the statue appears a little morbid. And, as I notice that us onlookers are reflected in the platinum leaf facade of the piece, I have to wonder if this final moment in the exhibition is meant for us to ponder our own mortality.
That, in itself, is what makes Murakami the gifted artist that he is. He is a master of combining the visual appeal — the cute, if you will — with dark themes. He's not doing creepy-cute but, rather, subversive-cute. It's easy to become hypnotized by the smiles and the bright colors. The only way you can break the trance, though, is to walk in closer to the piece, stare a little longer at the details and realize that there are more layers to the work than what you can see from across a room.
Takashi Murakami's “Arhat” runs at Blum & Poe through May 25.