A hair salon in Harajuku seems an unlikely venue for an art museum, especially one dedicated to a shaven-headed, New York artist who works principally in ballpoint pen.
Nonetheless, Lennie Mace sees something apt about the location of his eponymous museum, housed in a salon named Antenna Dome in the hectic heart of Tokyo’s youth culture. “I couldn’t think of a better place to have my museum than a hair salon, because Japanese people spend far more time having their hair done than in museums,” the boiler-suited artist explains.
Mace is still working on the museum and salon’s lavishly decorated reception area, which features everything from a set of antique Art Deco lamps chosen by Mace to “nipple walls” (Mace’s phrase for walls covered with CDs). In the background, salon staff go about their business, apparently unperturbed by an artist loose on the premises.
The decor — also including a ceiling collage of torn magazine pictures — is so overwhelming and varied that you might miss Mace’s trademark, his ballpoint-pen works. It is these works that got the ball rolling for the 36-year-old artist’s career, giving him not only the perfect publicity gimmick — Mace styles himself “the da Vinci of doodlers” — but also his ideal artistic medium.
“These sharp lines are something you just can’t get with paint,” he says, pointing out the fine, tattoolike lines he has drawn on a glossy magazine photo of a model. This work is part of his “AD-LIB” series, in which Mace draws on magazine advertisements and illustrations. He explores the forms of the original image by superimposing complex geometric lines, or adds ironic touches in the form of drawings of objects and figures that are typically dome-headed, like their creator.
Then there are ambitious works that Mace calls “PENtings,” complex pen works on blank paper, such as his full-color copy of the Mona Lisa, that was bought by the Pilot pen company.
Although the pen’s greater precision is its main appeal for Mace, he is also attracted to the medium by one quality that usually terrifies artists — its irreversibility. “With paint, I know I can make mistakes,” he says. “You think, ‘Ach, I can go over that later.’ But when you put pen down on paper, there’s no going back. So my drawing goes on in my head before the pen even touches the paper.”
It is this very cleanness and precision of Mace’s drawings that makes them often appear mechanical. The artist readily agrees: “Years of drawing with ballpoint pen has given me such mind-to-eye-to-hand coordination that there is a very mechanical element to my work.”
Given Mace’s love of the clean line, the clash between his rarefied pen works and the eclectic, cyber-punk clutter of the setting he has created for them is striking. Some of the credit for this goes to Mace’s principal Japanese patron, Sadao Yoshida, president of the company that runs the salon and — when it comes to hair extensions — an artist in his own right. Even before Mace arrived, Yoshida’s salon was an Aladdin’s cave of kitsch, displaying countless toy figures, wartime and firemen’s helmets, model guns and the like.
The challenge of incorporating these elements into his own aesthetic has pushed Mace in new directions. “This is the first time I’ve worked on a surface that isn’t flat,” he says, indicating lines penned on one of his most interesting pieces, a mannequin partially encased in Star Wars storm trooper armor, complete with George Lucas’ autograph.
But with so much going on in such a small space, isn’t there a risk of sensory overload? “If there is, it’s already happened,” Mace responds. “But as people come repeatedly over time, even if nothing’s changed there is so much to look at. They’re going to pick out things that they hadn’t noticed before.
“It’s a generational thing. While an older person might feel comfortable about the kind of emptiness [that characterises much contemporary Japanese art], a young person will feel more comfortable with something more full on. Harajuku is an exact example of that. It is media overload and this museum exemplifies that.”
And there is one more reason why Antenna Dome is the perfect place for Mace’s art — its captive audience of customers. “When I first walked in, it was quite overwhelming, really entertaining,” one appreciative Australian client told me. “Usually getting your hair done is so boring.”