Sanrio has turned cuteness into a global business that includes everything from pencils and plush toys to sushi-making sets and theme parks—and, recently, contemporary art. Last year, the Japanese company celebrated its 50th anniversary by inviting 50 artists to create works featuring Sanrio characters. The results were showcased in “Small Gift,” a touring show that made stops in Los Angeles and Miami Beach during Art Basel. Meanwhile, a new exhibition focuses on a generation of Japanese artists that is challenging the craze over the kawaii (cute) esthetic that Sanrio has made billions exporting.
Many of the artists in “Small Gift” celebrated Sanrio’s cheerful menagerie by subverting its star, Hello Kitty. The adorable kitten accounts for approximately half of the company’s sales, and is fresh off her own 35th birthday bash (her mouthless face first appeared on a coin purse in 1974). Shepard Fairey gave his stenciled Hello Kitty a maniacally arched eyebrow and a can of spray paint, while Nina Chanel Abney showed her Impurrfection, a painting that added Kitty-style red bows to four demonic floating heads. Musician-artist Mark Mothersbaugh depicted a Kitty-like figure ascending a ladder, in a custom rug work entitled Hello Kitty Goes to Heaven.
Sixteen Japanese artists take a more critical look at the culture of cute in “Bye Bye Kitty!!!: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art,” an exhibition that opens March 18 at the Japan Society Gallery in New York. “I thought that some of the best contemporary Japanese art is the converse of the Western stereotype of it being either infantilistically cute or socially autistic,” says David Elliott, the show’s organizer and former director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. “And I wanted to show how many artists simultaneously work with and challenge esthetic tradition.”
Many of the 38 works included in the exhibition reference traditional Japanese art, but often with an unsettling contemporary twist. Upon entering the gallery, viewers will encounter Makoto Aida’s Ash Color Mountains (2009–10), a 23-foot-wide painting that initially appears to depict a trio of mountains. A closer look reveals them to be heaps of dead salarymen splayed on their discarded office equipment. Yamaguchi Akira also riffs on classical landscape motifs. His two paintings of the skies over Narita airport are limned in gold clouds that suggest not splendor but smog.
The mood lightens in a series of installations created especially for the exhibition. Tomoko Shioyasu and Haruka Kojin (at 27, the show’s youngest artist) each deploy the art of paper cutting to create delicate works that seem to float in space, while Berlin-based Chiharu Shiota gathered together 200 suitcases for Empty Home, which fills an entire room. Rising superstar Kohei Nawa’s taxidermied elk is covered in a skin of plastic beads. “The creature is a powerful sculptural figure in itself, but at the same time, it’s sort of morphing into the atmosphere,” says Joe Earle, director of the Japan Society Gallery.
The show ends with Yoshitomo Nara’s 2008 photograph of a gray granite gravestone topped with two symmetrical Hello Kitty figures. But the exhibition’s organizers have set their sights on themes bigger than just one feline. “‘Bye Bye Kitty!!!’ is sort of a metaphor for a wider kind of bye-bye,” says Earle. “Bye-bye kawaii, bye-bye cute, and maybe even bye-bye predominance of manga and anime in the perception of Japanese visual culture these days.”
Stephanie Murg is a New York-based writer covering art and design. She blogs at UnBeige.com.