“Kurai” (“It’s dark”) says someone as we open the door at the new entrance of Nanzuka gallery in Shibuya, Tokyo. Yet, the freshly painted black walls and dimly lit stairs inside set the mood for a gallery specializing in underground art, and provide the perfect contrast to the explosion of color that awaits on the white walls below.
The first exhibition in Nanzuka’s new space (one floor down from its previous gallery) is “Amulet of the Tapir” by Keiichi Tanaami — the artist’s first solo show at his home gallery in three years, and with all new paintings.
According to Japanese mythology, tapirs (baku) are known to eat bad dreams, so perhaps the amulet of the title is meant to protect viewers from any nightmares induced by Tanaami’s work.
The show consists of 11 paintings and a short animated film, each of which contain the psychedelic pop imagery that fans of Tanaami revel in: comic-book air force jets “Wham!” and “Crash!” above naked women, while cherry blossoms, Astro Boy and other Japanese motifs smash together in a riot of color.
Since the 1960s, Tanaami has been associated with the pop-art movement, and the influence of artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein is clear. In his own work from the ’60s and ’70s collage played a big part (and still does) as Tanaami would juxtapose clippings from American comics and girlie magazines with his own drawn images of women in sexual poses.
But what Tanaami has always brought to his brand of pop are his personal experiences of World War II. As a child he witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo by the United States, and in his work the jet fighters lifted from Lichtenstein’s oeuvre take on ominous overtones; and when juxtaposed with the nudes and disembodied genitals that are a constant feature of Tanaami’s work, the psychosexual message seems clear: Make love not war.
Tanaami, who began his career as a graphic designer and illustrator, often says that, along with his recollections of the war, it was the hallucinations he saw while recovering from pleurisy at the age of 44 that are responsible for the increasingly psychedelic style of his work.
Since the mid 2000s, however, Tanaami’s work has been getting more and more distorted and nightmarish, and this latest collection feels as if the 80-year-old artist has returned from an acid trip that had an extra level of hallucinatory madness.
The big-headed, wide-eyed women of earlier works are twisted here, dismembered and scattered among copious motifs appropriated from artists that have influenced Tanaami. Lichtenstein’s jets fire at the roosters of Ito Jakuchu, while the unravelling heads of M.C. Escher’s “Bond of Union” hover above a De Chirico landscape infested by spiders that have mutated from Tanaami’s dot-screened, naked women.
If this is what Tanaami’s recent dreams have been like, let’s hope that tapir has not yet lost its appetite.
“Keiichi Tanaami: Amulet of the Tapir” at Nanzuka gallery runs until Aug. 5; Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free. Closed Mon., Sun. and holidays. nug.jp/en/top