Hello Andy!

American pop meets Japanese neo-pop at Denver's MCA.

The fall/winter show at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, POPjack: Warhol to Murakami, is a thoughtful and thought-provoking survey of the interrelationships between the American art of the 1960s and '70s and Japanese and American art from the last five years. The compelling exhibit is highly unusual, even if the pairing of pop art and neo-pop art seems like a natural one.

POPjack represents the first time that Denver art audiences have ever seen such an exhibit, because Japanese art is rarely featured here. Strangely, the same goes for American pop art and neo-pop art of any kind.

Not only that, but according to MCA director Cydney Payton, it's the only show of its type anywhere in the country right now. And it's one of the first museum presentations to explore the idea of linking modern art in the United States to the contemporary art of Japan and America. Where better to present it than at the MCA, which is housed in Sakura Square, Denver's Japanese-American business and cultural center? Even the show's labels are in both English and Japanese.

"Melting DOB B," by Takashi Murakami, acrylic on canvas.
courtesy of Takashi Murakami
"Melting DOB B," by Takashi Murakami, acrylic on canvas.

Payton came up with the idea for POPjack in conversations with an MCA donor who wishes to remain anonymous. This donor has a collection that reflects wide-ranging interests in modern and contemporary art, and Payton zeroed in on three distinct yet related styles.

The first selections were works on paper by the major icons of classic pop art. Then Payton chose neo-pop paintings and sculptures by Japanese artists. These pieces riff on Japanese popular culture, as well as the heritage of American pop art and American-invented mass culture. The unnamed donor owns works by a few of the biggest stars of the Japanese neo-pop movement, and Payton put some of the best of them in the show. Finally, she included pieces by American artists that refer to either American pop art or Japanese neo-pop.

Can you say "hermeneutics"?

Oh, I know, I know. I hate to introduce philosophical concepts into an art discussion, but in the case of hermeneutics and how well the art in POPjack illustrates that particular idea, I just have to.

Hermeneutics is the interpretation of an interpretation, and the concept ideally suits pop art because the style represents an interpretation of popular culture, which itself is an interpretation of...the culture. The neo-pop art being done by the Japanese is even more hermeneutical, as it refers to American pop art while representing a translation of Japanese pop culture -- which, in turn, traces its roots back to American popular culture. And then you have American artists referring to Japanese art that in turn refers to American art. Whew.

There are a number of aesthetic links joining pop art and neo-pop art, both Japanese and American. Payton points out several obvious connections (she calls them "superficial" characteristics), including "color, the flatness of pictorial space and the relationship to mass culture."

As is typical of Payton, she not only put this show together, but she oversaw its installation, too, and she's filled the museum to its physical limits, getting things going immediately inside the front door. Because her audience will be much more familiar with the pop classics, Payton might have been tempted to start there, but in a bold move, she begins the show with a work that exemplifies Japanese neo-pop. A series of wall masks made of a variety of materials and collectively titled "The Little Pilgrims" has been hung over the information/admission desk. The piece, from 1999, is by Yoshitomo Nara, one of the most important of the current crop of Japanese neo-pop artists, who, oddly enough, lives in Germany.

Nara is known for his off-kilter figural works that typically explore such sentimental subjects as children, dolls, or, as in the case of "The Little Pilgrims," babies -- at least I think that's what they are. Popjack includes several Naras. Among the standouts are two enigmatic paintings, both done in acrylic on canvas. Like "The Little Pilgrims," 1999's "Yellow Cub" and 2001's "Pale Mountain Dog" are simplified, almost minimal versions of recognizable things.

The source for Nara's imagery is cheap, kitschy Western-style figurines, dolls and stuffed animals that have long been made in Japan. By blowing up the scale and transforming them into sculptures and paintings, Nara imbues his pieces with a strange edginess that is absent from the originals, which are cloying. That sensibility links Nara to pop art, and even more to American post-pop artists of the '80s.

In the main space, Payton sets up the first of several narrative subtexts simply by lining up various pieces. In this case, she contrasts three views of women. The first is by the late Roy Lichtenstein. Titled "Crying Girl," the 1963 offset lithograph portrays -- what else? -- a crying girl. Lichtenstein's approach involved replicating crude mechanical printing by exaggerating the dot patterns of offset lithography. More than any first-generation pop artist, he referenced comics, which would later lead to a variety of styles not related to pop.

Hung next to the Lichtenstein is Aya Takano's "Foods of Turkey," a creepy storybook rendition of an odalisque from 2002, done in acrylic on canvas on panel. Next to the Takano is a painting of a woman who's apparently in danger, perhaps leaping to her death; "Jump" is a 2001 acrylic on canvas by Hideaki Kawashima.

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