Another bite at the cherry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2007, 12:00am

To a certain part of the population, Takashi Murakami is the guy who put cherry blossom prints on the Louis Vuitton monogram canvas - and in doing so created a sensation.

But for others, Murakami is a contemporary art legend, perhaps the most renowned artist in Japan, whose work can't be forgotten, much less replicated.

The ponytailed artist has just mounted a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, featuring the largest collection of his pieces ever seen in one place. Anyone familiar with his style will know he's all about wild colour, insane proportions, pieces that are part fantasy, part animation, part whimsy. And those who aren't familiar with it - well, perhaps now is the time.

Titled ?Murakami, the exhibition will run until February 11. It will then head to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Museum fur Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain by the middle of 2009.

The opening night was glitzy: American rapper Kanye West performed, and the place was heaving with A-listers including Marc Jacobs, creative head of Louis Vuitton. The luxury fashion brand even had a specially set-up store housing a new line of accessories given the Murakami flourish.

It was a perfectly orchestrated synthesis of fashion, art and commerce - and because it was Murakami, its street cred remained intact. At the end of the day, it was all about the art.

Murakami's work has often been compared to that of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, largely because of the references to pop culture that permeate his work. He is collected by wealthy art enthusiasts, and his run-off products - keychains, T-shirts and the like - are sought after by cool kids and geeks alike.

The exhibit includes about 90 pieces - spanning film, sculptures, paintings, and installations that are laid out in five rooms that take up 3,250 square metres.

Entering is like Las Vegas on an acid trip. Brilliant colours, swirling patterns, shiny multi-hued mushrooms leap out from every angle. And yet visitors can't take their eyes off the images.

Take, for example, Miss ko2, an iconic Murakami sculpture from a decade ago, and on first sight reminiscent of a Playboy bunny. But those aren't floppy ears on her head, but a bow - because this tiny-waisted, big-breasted figure is that of an aspiring pop star.

Other signature Murakami sculptures that assume pride of place in the exhibition are not quite as tame (although there remains something child-friendly about the whole experience). In Hiropon, another 10-year old sculpture, a girl is jumping a jagged white rope - which is actually milk squeezed out of her massive breasts. Adjacent to that is My Lonesome Cowboy, a 1998 work, of a naked man who has a white spiral around him - from an altogether different source.

There is a surreal feel to much of it. In a pair of paintings titled And Then, And Then And Then And Then And Then, from 1996, round cartoon faces, with large saucer-shaped eyes, peer through feathery lashes. There is a precise perfection to their simplicity.

In DOB in the Strange Forest, from 1999, a series of large, multi-coloured mushrooms fashioned from resin, fibreglass and acrylic are gathered in the centre of the room. Looking on, a visitor isn't quite sure what Murakami is trying to say and, truth be told, it doesn't really matter. The pieces are simply captivating.

In The Castle of Tin Tin, a 1998 work, a surprisingly austere grey background features a large swirling pattern that looks like a tornado with teeth, wide and pale brushstrokes removing any trace of menace.

And a highlight is Super Nova, from 1999, an acrylic on board-mounted canvas that is a series of mushroom shapes stretched out in a row, boasting every colour imaginable.

Still, no retrospective is ever complete without the requisite debut work, and Murakami obviously wasn't about to fritter away the opportunity on something that would get lost in the shuffle.

Instead, he unveiled Oval Buddha, a sculpture that towers almost six metres high and is covered in platinum leaf. The piece has two faces and sits in the Zen-like Buddha pose atop a lotus leaf and

an elephant.

Smaller and less intimidating pieces are placed throughout the five rooms: Murakami's smiling flowers in neon and rainbow colours are predominant, while pint-sized sculptures - of frogs, bunnies, more mushrooms and Murakami's take on a tribal African woman - are everywhere.

The exhibition is entertaining - no small feat for any important international retrospective. And stopping by the boutique is a treat in itself. This is no average museum shop; it has pieces created by Murakami just for the event, and only for as long as his work is on view in Los Angeles.