Even before Japanese pop artist Yumiko Kayukawa’s opening last weekend (which, for better or for worse, gave the partying art show crowd a chance to rock out to Neil Diamond, Elvis and Bowie, karaoke-style), CPOP had sold four of her paintings. It was only the second time (since Shag’s big CPOP show) that the gallery experienced such a pre-opening buying rush.
Of course, the heightened anticipation wasn’t surprising for those of us lured by the flat, sexy, fashionable style of contemporary Japanese pop art, and Kayukawa has been selling out shows from coast to coast.
Skillfully rendered, Kayukawa’s works look like design illustrations, but “she’s a painter’s painter,” says her agent, Gabriela Pedrova. Kayukawa works in acrylic on illustration board, defining each figure and element with precision.
Kayukawa’s work blends the arresting eroticism of fashion magazines with the lively, colorful dreamscapes of anime, an increasingly popular genre of Japanese animated cinema. Influenced heavily by manga (Japanese comic books), Kayukawa’s women are young, ultra-hip and gorgeous, set against vivid backgrounds, and juxtaposed with traditional Japanese calligraphy (kanji) and assorted images from the natural world — insects, animals, birds, flowers, bears and rabbits.
The artist plays with images of fetish and subjugation, but the girls in her paintings always make eye contact with the viewer, and often illustrate their innate power through expression, despite sometimes-precarious poses.
Kayukawa’s work has been compared to Superflat, a movement spearheaded by artist Takashi Murakami and known for its linear, single-plane quality and pop culture references. In contrast to some of the über-erotic subject matter found in anime, Kayukawa gives her female objects a spirited, self-possessed quality. They face the viewer head-on. Although the women slouch seductively and show acres of skin, there is none of the typical pin-up girl pandering to the viewer. Instead, a sense of mystery pervades. Always, innocence and eroticism teeter provocatively in the balance.
Some of the women suggest feminine power even as they flirt like fashionable Lolitas. In “Grip” a slender young woman in a lace-trimmed camisole and denim miniskirt suggestively squeezes an apple core to bits in her fist. In “The Killer Fist,” a beautiful mermaid appears primed to attack if provoked.
The fabulously chic “Boots” depicts a campy trio of hipsters standing hand-on-hip, arrayed in an assortment of sexy mod and rock-chick outfits, all sporting boots, a possible reference to Charlie’s Angels.
The composition and design of these pieces are mouthwatering. Not without their darker sides, the paintings usually deliver a humorous wink. Often the Japanese written characters placed in the work contain a hidden deadpan or silly joke that, of course, can be understood only by someone who reads Japanese.
“She paints … to have something for the Japanese viewer,” says Pedrova. It leaves non-Japanese literate fans wishing to know the joke.
One piece showcases a girl splayed on her stomach wearing ruffled panties, a maid’s kerchief and apron. Arms tied behind her back, she clutches a fork and knife in either hand. Nearby, ants are invading a plate of pancakes. The piece is titled “Nothin’ But the Pancakes.”
Kayukawa was born in the small, rural town of Naie in Hokkaido, Japan. Shy and unassuming in person, she began painting as a small child, and fell in love with Americana early on. If her paintings bubble with teenage exuberance, it’s probably because that formative time jump-started her artistic awakening. Growing up, she was surrounded by the natural phenomena that would eventually find its way into her work. And she had a passion for the film, fashion and rock ’n’ roll of American pop culture.
Today, the inspiration still holds — and provides an effective means of reaching her viewers.
She has said, “I’d rather my paintings hang next to rock star pin-ups than on museum walls. Ultimately I want to connect with people all over the world on that level.”
She’s accomplished her feat, at least in Detroit.
See Yumiko Kayukawa’s work through Oct. 28 at CPOP, 4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Call 313-833-9901 for more information.Christina Kallery is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org