The biographical blurb on Keiichi Tanaami’s webpage begins, “A magazine that is packed to the brim with human interests and desires bears a strong resemblance to who I am as a person.”
“Keiichi Tanaami Dialogue” at the Kyoto ddd gallery is all about the graphic designer/animator/artist’s formative and long-explored experiences at an extremity of pop culture. His sometimes innocent, sometimes pornographic, influences percolated, exploded and re-formed in multiple and mutant ways in a career that took off in the 1960s and is still going strong. The exhibition’s 20-odd recent prints and animation clips, earlier sculptures and collaborations with apparel brands, and stacks of books, magazines and tableware products, amount to an almost spiritual overview of his occupations.
Tanaami was stamped with indelible impressions during his childhood. Relocating to his grandfather’s house in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward while the city was being firebombed during World War II, visual spectacles were burned into his consciousness: the capital in flames, the citizenry fleeing and searchlights desperately scanning the skies for American bombers.
His teenage years came with a fascination with American popular culture icons, including Superman and Wonder Woman, American B-movies, such as Jack Arnold’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) and glamorous and seductive Hollywood leads like Jayne Mansfield in “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956). His tastes were for destruction, the comically fantastic and grotesque, and the body beautiful and erotic.
Traveling to New York in 1967, Tanaami observed Andy Warhol transitioning from commercial illustrator to celebrity pop artist and decided he would do the same. He went on to produce Japan-release album covers for Jefferson Airplane and The Monkees, made forays into book publishing, manga and anime, and became art director for Monthly Playboy in 1975.
When hospitalized with pleurisy in the early ’80s, the hallucinations that consumed Tanaami brought a new energy to his art through themes of life and death. Brands looking to tap into the youth-culture market discovered Tanaami’s mature style and collaborations ensued — Mary Quant in 2003, Paul Smith in 2007 and Stussy in 2013. Examples of skateboards, sunglasses, shoes, designer tees and other items are carefully arranged in display cases at the exhibition.
Tanaami’s most recent large-scale prints, which were conceived as mandalas, bring a spiritual aspect to the show. These works, like the display cases of fashion ephemera, condense the fragments of Tanaami’s experientially informed working life into assemblages of representative visual forms.
Collages, such as “Encounter with the Alternate Dimension B” (2018) are filled with graphics of the artist’s mixed memories and warped dreams about pop deities like Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop. Other works feature sexually posed pin-up models, animated Edo Period (1603-1868) chickens that roar like Godzilla, UFOs, Astro Boy and rampaging robots. Art historical references include Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” surrealist Giorgio de Chirico’s desolate townscapes and Edvard Munch’s fin de siecle “The Scream.”
Interspersed among these are fearsome Buddhist divinities, such as the Thousand-armed Kannon who sees with her 1,000 eyes and rescues with her 1,000 helping hands, or transfigured cutesy pop-culture figures formatted into Buddhist iconographies. The deluge of references is in parts a summary visual archive of Tanaami’s resources, a small-scale retrospective and an autobiography.
“Keiichi Tanaami Dialogue” at Kyoto ddd gallery runs until Oct. 23, entry is free. For more information, visit www.dnp.co.jp/gallery/ddd