Friday, November 14, 2014

Takashi Murakami at Gagosian; Albert York at Matthew Marks

Bakuramon. Photo: Susan Yung
Takashi Murakami is known for his Superflat style—anime and cartoon-like imagery composed using oval or circular forms, giving them a cuddly affect. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade boasts a float of his design, and Louis Vuitton has embellished handbags with LV logos in his rainbow palette. In his new show, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea through January 17, he  draws on sources from Japanese history, but taps into a dark figurative array. It also reveals the breadth of his thematic and technical ambition concerning subjects no less than life, death, the depiction of religion, and creativity.

The behemoth of the exhibition is Bakuramon, a life-sized installation after the gate Rashomon, in Japan, modeled after a Chinese Tang Dynasty piece. Murakami packs a lot into this symbol: cultural appropriation and loss of original meaning, a mistaken religious icon, and a gateway between in/out, life/death, and the act of artistic interpretation. Funny thing though: the gate building itself comes across not as a work of art, but a stage set. 
Detail: A Picture of the Blessed Lion Who Nestles with the Secrets of Death and the Universe. Photo: Susan Yung
Some of his paintings appear to be battlegrounds for a standoff between a staid icon (a temple) and a platoon of horrifying, zombie-like dudes with multiple eyes and snaggly teeth. (His notes on the painting refer to a WWII-era painter, Arnold Bocklin, who became suddenly popular and thereafter painted the same subject again and again.) In another series, he has graffitied DEATH HATE I (to be read in reverse) and HOLLOW over a field of small cartoon figures. These read as public exhumations of internal conflict about the nature and purpose of art, an odd kind of self-loathing and intentional sabotage of otherwise happy paintings.

A series of round paintings are minimalist compositions of pretty elements. Another series, the Arhat paintings, are no less than what Murakami thinks "a contemporary Japanese belief system might look like." Perhaps not coincidentally, these essentially abstract works, each focused around a mesmerizing multi-layered circle, seem to tap into strands of modern art movements. His "Lion" paintings are at once irresistibly opulent and plasticky—gold and platinum leaf over relief painting form backgrounds—with motifs of lions on bridges of skulls and lion cubs (death and rebirth).

Albert York, Pink and White Flowers in a Glass
, 1965
Photo: Susan Yung
Albert York, Landscape with Trees and Snake, 1980
Photo: Susan Yung

A giant mural, from which the exhibition takes its name, is so long, it's best to read it as you walk from end to end (it's 25,000 mm long, whatever that is. Long.). Skulls, ships, elephants, fish, and a million other elements populate this composition, similar in form to multi-paneled ancient screens. He also includes several sculptures that range from your basic manga-like demons to The Birth Cry of a Universe, a garishly opulent gold-leafed totem that represents a ferocious natural force, but not a physical imitation of one.

It's hard not to be impressed by the sheer ambition and scale of this exhibition, but then go and see Matthew Marks' quiet, beautiful show of paintings by Albert York, also on 24th St., through December 20. This show of 37 paintings done between 1963 and 1992 are primarily of the landscape and still-life mode, mostly around 12" square or a bit smaller. A cheery floral bouquet is dimmed slightly by some murk in his palette. A snake slithers across the bottom of a field of grass, and a gator inexplicably hovers at the side of another. He worked primarily from his home in East Hampton, but for all the touches of goth, he could've been in the tangled swamps of the South. Without illustrating life vs. death, he implicates the everyday world in just that battle.

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