Ushio Shinohara, ‘Doll Festival’ (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood. Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection) © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara
Tate Modern’s major autumn show opens with a daring premise: that the visual discourse of Pop Art was not limited to the West but was, in fact, a global transformation. Japan is represented as a central part of this development, particularly apropos of the experimental video work produced by a group of Tokyo graphic designers in the 1960s. Their practice encapsulates one of the key questions at stake in this show: how the visual vocabulary and technical features of ‘Pop’ became commingled with societal shifts that were global in scope. Whether it is anti-war sentiment, the threat of nuclear destruction or the incipient rapid spread of Western consumer goods which come to the fore in the works, they each point toward a history of Pop Art that is more multi-lateral and complex than has previously been acknowledged in the canon.
Within the context of the exhibition’s wide cultural remit, “KISS KISS KISS” (1964) by Tadanori Yokoo re-appropriates the aggressive vitality of the imagery of American Pop Art giants like Warhol or Lichtenstein. In a hybrid work of collage and animation, the kissing couples of Lichtenstein’s oeuvre are shown in seemingly endless sequence. Each thin paper image peels back to reveal the next two-dimensional embrace, suggesting that once society enters the age of mass production even human relationships acquire a weightless two-dimensionality.
A different response to the motifs and palette of American Pop Art is the later video work “Mona Lisa” (1973) by Toshio Matsumoto, which represents the iconic painting through a spectrum of hallucinogenic neon colours, quoting the acid-bright portrait prints of Andy Warhol. The work also perhaps draws attention to the absurdity of paying extreme reverence to only a select few cultural monuments, anticipating the mass excitement that welcomed a rare tour of the original Mona Lisa in Tokyo the year after this video was made.
Turning away from canonical questions, the work “Crayon Angel” (1975) by Keiichi Tanaami casts the imagery of Pop in a disturbing evocation of the atrocities of war. Tanaami was nine years old when Tokyo was bombed during the Great Tokyo Air Raid of World War II in 1945, and this work re-lives the firebombs dropped from American planes through a vocabulary of technicolour blasts and the monstrous, ever-louder crowing of a rooster, which dominates the picture as the animal’s fiery red coxcomb appears to morph into flames. The work is interposed with documentary photographs of the air raids which have been tinted bright orange, like memories seared onto the human imagination.
However, in the same way that Warhol’s portraits and Lichtenstein’s kissing couples are fair material for re-appropriation, the motifs of Tanaami’s work are not themselves exempt from re-appropriation and commodification by the Pop aesthetic. The painting “Atomic Kiss” (1968) by Catalàn artist Joan Rabascall depicts a lipstick besides a woman’s scarlet disembodied lips, above which rises a smoke-cloud from an atomic bomb. The powerful subversion of Rabascall’s collage method refigures the Hiroshima and Nagasaki disasters within a visual narrative of capitalist consumption.
Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) Acrylic on canvas, 1620 x 970 mm. MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund, Photo: Tony Coll © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015
At times, The World Goes Pop’s diversity of media and subject matter threatens to burst its own self-assigned conceptual boundaries. At its best, however, this show is a bold and original attempt to re-site the visual cues and subject matter of ‘Pop’ within a global framework. One complex painting within which such questions may be further explored is “Doll Festival” (1966) by Japanese Neo-Dada artist Ushio Shinohara. Using both oil and fluorescent paint the work depicts the traditional Japanese festival of dolls – a popular motif in Edo period woodblock printing of the ukiyo-e school. The radically cropped focal perspective on the figures, as well as the stark bold colours used to depict them, situate this image clearly within a dialogue of influence and appropriation which was evidently already extant between Japanese and American art at the comparably early stage of the mid-1960s. The central figure wears a Stetson-style hat, the incongruity of which is underlined by the jaunty Japanese flags pinned to his lapel. The work thereby manifests, in both stylization and subject matter, a fusion between the development of Japanese contemporary art and the globalization of the Pop aesthetic.
Ushio Shinohara was born in Tokyo (1932). The artist lives and works in Brooklyn, New York City.