Barrick intern Catherine Swift opened her self-curated pop-up exhibition, Tiger and the Eternal Struggle, in our West Gallery today. This is the research piece she wrote to accompany the show. A piece by intern Samantha Castle — whose own pop-up is installed on the wall opposite Swift’s — will be posted next week.
What can happen when artists draw from art history traditions and modern symbols in a piece of artwork? The collection at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art contains two works by UNLV alumni Sush Machida Gaikotsu and Eri King that present art and concepts of the past alongside current products and themes in Western society. Gaikotsu’s Tiger (2007) and The Eternal Struggle (4ever21) (2017) by King, investigate the interesting interaction of distinct cultures and time periods. Both works of art depict how traditional and contemporary ideas come together to suggest a sense of displeasure or unrest against the status quo of today.
Gaikotsu uses color and pop art imagery to create his multipart compositions. Not only drawing from clipart-like images that can be seen in modern technology, the artwork is also visibly shaped by the stylistic elements and animal depictions of traditional Japanese art. Tiger is reminiscent of older works such as Kano Eitoku’s 6-panel folding screen, Chinese Lions (1590), located at the Museum of the Imperial Collections in Tokyo, and Kishi Ganku’s late Edo period hanging scroll, Tiger (19th c.), located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Both artworks feature stylized animals, a vertical composition, and lack a clear horizon line. Additionally, there is a red stamp meant to identify the artist in the upper left portion of Ganku’s piece. In Gaikotsu’s work, a horizon line is also nonexistent and his red, stamp-like initials are painted with care in the upper left corner. The entire background is a gradient grey blue night sky, with no distinction of where the animals came from. Elevating the animals into the unknown is the gentle image of a cloud outlined with a stark red line.
Movement is hinted through the use of the gradient yellow within the outline of the cloud. The vertical format of the wood panel resembles a mounted wall scroll or a single panel in a folding screen. As one looks deeper into the composition, a narrative ensues between a ferocious, formidable tiger and an endearing, unassuming heart-eyed mouse. The miniscule mouse is clawing onto the foot of the tiger, visibly infuriating it, as the head of the tiger is turned angrily in its direction. Lifted into the unknown realm, the two conflicting animals are in such disagreement that the viewer remains curious about where they could end up.
As mentioned in Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design by Merrily Baird, tigers can signify courageousness and power, while mice can represent prosperity and misfortune in traditional Japanese art. Within Gaikotsu’s Tiger, the irritation of the tiger and the glare directed at the eager mouse suggest a discontentment or feeling of antipathy towards the representation of prosperity and its effects. The tiger may view the lingering mouse as a bad omen.
Decorating the subjects and their surroundings is an explosion of familiar, clipart-like images and mass produced items that serve many purposes in technology and the everyday. Depictions of little green tree air fresheners, a tiny dragon, star beams, small birds, a single flower, a tattoo gun, and — the most recognizable of the bunch — an Andy Warhol banana riddle the composition. Like cells, many of these images have been replicated throughout the piece. One larger green tree air freshener is even stuck to the back of the tiger, almost as though it is attempting to infect it. The Andy Warhol banana and the tattoo gun are gingerly balancing on the claws of the tiger. The former is symbolic of commodity, while the latter suggests artistic freedom and originality. Through the presentation of these items alongside the traditional, it is hinted that replication through mass production could turn a one of a kind artwork or design into a commodity.
In everyday life, these symbols and products have a perceived value based on how they are used; to freshen up a room, signify importance, accompany a text message, and even create something unique. By working with these traditional components in tandem with the depiction of mass produced items and symbols, it is suggested that there are differences between how society values the things we have now in comparison to the past. Our current world is flooded with commercialism, but we can still find ways to bring back ingenuity. For the tiger, the travelling cloud may be the only way to escape from the lure of prosperity or journey to the freshness of creative freedom.
Tiger and The Eternal Struggle (4ever21) could be interpreted as modern takes on the Japanese genre of ukiyo-e, also referred to as “the floating world.” The clouds in both compositions quite literally lift the subjects into a floating world. The concept of this artistic genre was described by historian Paul Varley as:
“…In the broadest sense the insubstantial and ever-changing existence in which man is enmeshed. To medieval Buddhists, this had been a wretched and sorrowful existence, and ukiyo always carried the connotation that life is fundamentally sad; but in Genroku times, the term was more commonly taken to mean a world that was pleasurable precisely because it was constantly changing, exciting, and up-to-date.”
The Eternal Struggle (4ever21) by King employs strong visual components from well-known artworks whilst drawing from elements of Japanese art and contemporary life. Her artistic mission is to “draw upon the vast reservoir of the banal, unnoticed, and repetitive actions as a way to increase visibility and perceived value of these overlooked aspects of lived experience.”
As a part of her Unnutritious Facts series, this mixed media drawing also seems to explore the everyday in combination with remnants of the past. Ukiyo-e is suggested through the figures and their interaction with the objects of mass consumption. Hoisted above the happenings of humanity by way of the clouds, the two figures are in a state of retreat, emoting an intense sadness. Their bodies take the form of the subjects in the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (1424-27) by Masaccio and are adorned with images derived from The Last Judgment (1536-41) by Michelangelo.
Surrounding the emotive subjects are the objects of mass production. Visibly heartbroken, one figure is attempting to hold the other close while they dry their eyes with a bag of Cheetos. The recognizable arms of Mickey Mouse tightly grip the two figures, almost as if the appendages desire to hold them together or squeeze the life out of them. Another prominent Disney element is Snow White and the Prince filling the space between the sensitive figures. Off in the distance, the storefront of a business called Forever is floating in midair. Complete with fabricated cell tower palm trees, it is a scene the viewer has certainly encountered in everyday life. For the two figures, this could be understood as the objects and places of their everyday activities. Forever, as a literal interpretation, could be the physical manifestation of “the floating world” in the form of a floating store. The references to contemporary material reveal not only societies dependency on pleasurable, idyllic actions in everyday life such as the consumption of media, shopping, and food, but also the ability of these objects to make individuals miserably dissatisfied and unhappy. Like Adam and Eve, these figures have been exiled from a place of satisfaction that no longer serves them. What was once a source of comfort, is now a source of great pain. The work suggests mass production and consumerism is damaging to the self and possibly even draining us of our creativity and uniqueness as human beings. We are ultimately at the hands of the capitalist system and its “unnutritious facts.”
In placing Tiger and The Eternal Struggle (4ever21) on common ground, the intent is to portray complex narratives with analogous iconography and inspiration. In the case of Gaikotsu and King, it appears that their subjects are being transported out of the common world and into an altered realm. Within this realm, The Eternal Struggle (4ever21) and Tiger express to the viewer not only the power of capitalism and wealth, but also courageousness and free will. Utilizing elements prominent in our everyday synonymously with the concept of ukiyo-e and motifs present in Japanese art, the artists successfully portray their take on the condition of contemporary life — as an ever-transforming source of unrest and displeasure.
In an interview with the blog Light Leaks, King states, “I believe desire is what creates value to the things that surround us.” The want or need for products, media, and knowledge generates the monetary or sentimental value associated with it. Tiger and The Eternal Struggle (4ever21) provide viewers with multifaceted perspectives on items that are given worth in these depicted worlds and how they can negatively affect the self. What is perceived as harmless can be more detrimental than we will ever know.
Baird, Merrily. Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 2001. (pp. 156, 164).
Durmysheva, Yana and Aaron Kozbelt. “Lifespan Creativity in Non-Western Artistic Tradition: A Study of Japanese Ukiyo-e Printmakers.” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development. Vol. 65, no. 1, p. 23-51. Sage.
Light Leaks Interview with Eri King. September 12, 2018.
Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000. (pp.182)
The illustrations Swift gave us for this article are 1) Kano Eitoku, Chinese Lions, 1590, Momoyama Period. Six-panel folding screen, color, ink and gold leaf on paper, 88in x 178in. Museum of the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan; and 2) Sush Machida Gaikotsu, Tiger, 2007. Acrylic on panel, 72in x 16in x 1.75in. The Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art.