A shimmering taxidermy deer and a gasp-inducing canvas depicting a tumulus of minuscule salary men are among the compelling works set to greet visitors to Japan Society Gallery from March 18 to June 12. The occasion is “Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art,” an exhibition introducing American audiences to a new wave of Japanese artists who challenge their country’s long love affair with the kawaii (cute) aesthetic.
“This is grown-up art, created for the most part by artists who are little-known here in the United States,” said exhibition organizer David Elliott, an independent curator who has directed several major modern art museums. The 16 participating artists range in age from their late 20s to their mid-40s, with the exception of the senior Yoshitomo Nara, well known both in Japan and the West for his engagement with popular manga culture, who contributes the touchstone work of the exhibition: a color photograph of two large, symmetrical “Hello Kitty” polychrome stone figures atop a beautifully maintained gray granite gravestone, 2008.
The exhibition is very much in dialogue with the themes raised five years ago in “Little Boy,” a milestone exhibition at Japan Society Gallery organized by the artist Takashi Murakami, according to Joe Earle, director of Japan Society Gallery. “The artists represented in this exhibition, however, have a less ironic, more dynamic and varied view of the world, reflecting a wide range of personal histories and agendas,” he said.
Many of the paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and videos in “Bye, Bye Kitty!!!” illustrate the manner in which today’s vanguard artists in Japan freely and creatively sample Japanese pictorial conventions, ultimately reframing tradition †whether it be the conservative aesthetic of traditional Japanese painting and sculpture, the graphic ingenuity of Ukiyo-e prints or neotraditional styles developed in the early decades of the last century.
A two-panel work by Makoto Aida, for instance, emulates the traditional decorative form of painted screens, but with imagery †two massively heroic schoolgirls squared off against one another, each hoisting a South Korean or a Japanese flag aloft †that is a biting commentary on today’s uneasy East Asian relations. Similarly, in a large-scale triptych titled “Defeat at the Single Blow, Robust and Magnificent Feature, Gallant and Brave Behavior,” 2008, by Hisashi Tenmyouya supplants the religious imagery one would expect from the format with a depiction of battle as a feral experience.
In two views of Narita International Airport, 2005, Yamaguchi Akira employs the pictorial devices associated with the Seventeenth Century “famous views” of Kyoto, only to insert scenes of environmental despoliation within the familiar golden, misty clouds (which one now suspects are petrochemical smog). Other works in the show meditate on the natural environment and humanity’s precarious relationship with it.
Haruka Kojin, at 27 the youngest artist in the exhibition, contributes an eerily reflective installation made from multihued cut paper forms that seem to float in space. Rinko Kawauchi’s constellation of 46 different-sized photographs depicts the minutiae of moments in an allusive world.
Three new works of art will be unveiled in the exhibition. Kohei Nawa is preparing a taxidermied deer covered with a skin of plastic beads to form an irregular, globular skin that confounds expectations of sight and touch. Tomoko Shioyasu is making a large-scale installation, employing the decorous Japanese art of paper cutting to snip, slit, cut and slice large swathes of paper into sheets of white membranelike forms that animate surrounding space with cast light.
Chiharu Shiota’s installation “Dialogue with Absence,” recently unveiled in Paris, combines a painted wedding dress with pumps, tubing, and red-dyed water to create an umbilical network of linked veins that suggests a dreamlike, unconscious state of anxiety.
Japan Society is at 333 East 47th Street between First and Second Avenues. For information, www.japansociety.org or 212-832-1155.