Misaki Kawai: Arty Farty
As the old cliché of art criticism goes: my six-year-old could paint that. Yet when it comes to the output of artist Misaki Kawai, that feels like the highest possible compliment. For in her big, bold colours, her wilfully naïve style and her sly, playful sense of humour, Kawai channels the best parts of a child’s mind–the playfulness, the curiosity and the abiding appreciation of a good fart.
A creative childhood
Originally hailing from Osaka but now living in Los Angeles–as she puts it, a place of “mountains, palm trees, squirrels, raccoons and helicopters“–Kawai was a “shy, but goofy” girl who spent her time drawing, painting and making crafts. Inspired by her mother, a professional puppet maker, and father, an architect and amateur painter, Kawai’s childhood was open-range and creatively driven.
“It was very much a freestyle household,” Kawai says.
“We were allowed to do what we wanted, as long as it wasn't disturbing anybody else.” This meant play ruled above all else. “Maybe it's an Osaka thing: a lot of comedians hail from there!”
Given her background, it was perhaps inevitable that Kawai would end up studying at the Kyoto College of Art (now Kyoto University of the Arts). It was there that she started using simple craft material like papier-mâché, felt, old clothes and stickers. Basically the stuff of a primary school art room to create the whimsical and weird dioramas and installations that have become her calling card.
From Japan to New York
Yet it was only when Kawai moved to New York in the early 2000s that she began finding recognition. “I was always obsessed with Western culture,” she says, “but I needed to live somewhere like New York to understand how to make my art work on such a large scale.” Her first exhibition, 2002’s Air Show, featured a fanciful convoy of planes and fighter jets made from rags and blankets, complete with cotton wool exhaust. The lead plane carried The Beatles and was being piloted by three versions of Kawai herself. (The New York Times described it as a “tour-de-force debut”.)
Over the intervening years, Kawai’s art has become ever more wide-ranging and voracious. She calls on paint, illustration, video, performance and interactive digital formats. Yet whatever the medium, her work is always infused with the spirit of heta-uma, which can be loosely translated as “bad but good”. First emerging in Japan's manga scene in the 1970s, heta-uma was intended as an antidote to the polished, hyper-stylised art that dominated mainstream comics. ”To me, heta-uma means bad technique, good sense,” Kawai explains. “Skill is not the most important factor in creating art–it’s about the feeling the art creates. Also, technique has an end point: perfection. But with heta-uma there’s no limit to where you can take it!”
Childlike but realistic
While Kawai’s work is dominated by childlike lines, gaudy colours, haphazard perspective and wonky lettering, her characters can often look lost, or ambivalent or unhappy. “Not everything is dreamy and cute,” she says. “I think we should appreciate all parts of life, even the very sad moments. That’s how we know the very happy moments matter.”
It’s here that Kawai sets herself apart from that other mainstay of Japanese art: kawaii (literally, cute). “So much of kawaii culture is just cute for cuteness’s sake,” she says. “It’s easy to enjoy, but not particularly interesting. If something is cute, but then has this funny or weird aspect to it, that’s really special.”
While Kawai’s work isn’t aimed at children, they’re her favourite audience. “Kids, like me, approach art through play,” says Kawai. “They’re simple and honest and I love that.” (As evidenced by her Instagram, Kawai’s five-year-old daughter Poko is a frequent collaborator and muse.)
Arty the dog
For the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial in 2020, Kawai is creating an indoor playground called Moja Moja Life. The exhibition centres around a four-metre-by-six-metre pink dog named Arty, whose gloriously shaggy coat children are encouraged to brush with gigantic combs. Elsewhere in Moja Moja Life, kids will discover miniature versions of Arty to clamber over, each with their own interactive digital face, as well as a puppet-making studio and puppet theatre where they can record their own creations.
Not that kids are necessarily the primary audience, though. “Kids will play how they play,” Kawai says. “It’s the adults I want to push out of their comfort zone. I want them to let loose with their children and make a creative leap, do something spontaneous and unexpected. That’s where the really good stuff happens.“
Written by Luke Ryan for Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 21.
Photography (image 1) by Vincent Dilio, (image 2) Courtesy of Misaki Kawai + The Hole, New York City, USA, (Image 3), Courtesy of Misaki Kawai + The Watermill Center, New York, USA.