On Aug. 15, 1977, an issue of New York Magazine was released with an image of Jamaican singer and model Grace Jones on the cover: She is almost naked, standing on one very long leg; her oil-coated torso twisting to face the camera, with one hand lightly holding a microphone and the other effortlessly stretching out to touch her other leg, bent impossibly backward.

The image is one you’ve likely seen many times, but what you might not know (or remember) is that this photograph is impossible. It wasn’t taken — it was constructed. Jones’ husband at the time, French illustrator and designer Jean-Paul Goude, rearranged multiple negatives of the same photo to “correct” (his word) Jones’ body and posture — a longer arm here, a little less stomach there — creating a perfect, exotic body. And he did it all by hand in the dark pre-Photoshop middle-ages, and repeated the technique with other portraits of Jones. In an interview with Vogue in 2011, Goude said he originally studied fine art but found it “more interesting to turn to publicity as a means of expression.”

“Image-Makers” at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo’s Roppongi disctrict is a confused, scattershot exhibition looking at that turn. It includes the work of Goude and five others who also found it more interesting to veer from their original medium to other visual languages as a means of expression. At least, that’s what the exhibition purports to be, according to director Helene Kelmachter’s text printed on a freestanding wall near the ticket counter.

Kelmachter has spent her career building artistic ties between Japan and France, first as curator of Fondation Cartier pour l’art Contemporain, then as a cultural attache to the French Embassy in Tokyo, and this show is an extra bit of spot welding on the Franco-Japanese cultural bridge.

Noritaka Tatehana’s fetishitic women’s shoes are one of the main draws. Tatehana rose to fame shortly after creating his own studio in 2010, thanks to celebrity patrons such as Lady Gaga. One comment-baiting Daily Mail headline from 2011 reads, “They cost up to $15,000 and Lady Gaga already has 14 pairs.”

In “Image-Makers” he presents Japanese courtesan slippers, which at nearly 40 cm tall border on unwearable. Tatehana’s room is filled with the impossibility of desire, with hairpins so big they’re unusable and plaster models of legs he has corrected by adding his trademark alien hoof. Photographer Hal’s images of Japanese couples in clear suction bags look on, their love sealed forever. More fetish, more impossibility, more desire.

So what does David Lynch have to do with all this? Kelmachter’s inclusion of Lynch’s lithographs in the exhibition supposedly stems from the artist’s ability to cross boundaries — from painting and fine art to cinema, back to painting and now music and meditation. His 24 monochrome lithographs shown here are also owned by Kelmachter’s old employer, the Cartier Foundation. Lynch’s uncanny horror is echoed by American artist Robert Wilson’s six video portraits of celebrities, including Princess Caroline of Monaco and Steve Buscemi.

“Image-Makers” is really a limited look at the gender-flipping, symbol-smashing, culturally confused world of Goude, featuring the celebrated images of Jones and his other “exotic” and “oriental” muses: Farida Khelfa and Karen Park-Goude, respectively (Karen is his current wife).

But the most frustrating aspect is that there’s not more of his work, especially more of his award-winning (and in some cases, banned) advertisements. As the 2012 “Goudemalion: A Retrospective of the Life and Work of Jean-Paul Goude” at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris showed, he has the work to justify a large-scale retrospective.

There are also uninspired “kinetic” sculptures (with music by Jun Miyake piped in from above), but the most relevant and exciting part of the work on display is via four monitors showing excerpts from Goude’s 1972 appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show,” where he showed how unfortunate-looking people can enhance their appearances using prothetic shoulders, hidden padding in shoes and fake bellybuttons — a technique he named The French Correction.

Goude is an ancestor to the strange world of manufactured desire that we now live in, where models in beauty pageants have surgery to look identical and you can implant an ear onto your arm. Maybe that’s why Lynch is here, a nod to the elusive subtext of the exhibition: We need the image makers to take our eyes off the horror of reality.

“Image-Makers” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till Oct. 5; open 11 a.m. — 8 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Tue. www.2121designsight.jp/en/program/image_makers

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.