If you are a Gen X’er or a Baby Boomer and you hear the phrase “giant robot,” it probably conjures up images of Ultra Man and other giant beings that invaded the TV in your childhood. When it is, in fact, a world-famous brand that has included publications, restaurants, merchandise and galleries, and a lot more. Giant Robot has brought together a diverse group of Asian and Asian-American artists, who have reached mass appeal across cultural and generational boundaries.
Giant Robot, the ‘zine and the brand, are the brainchild of Eric Nakamura, , who in this joyful show at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) takes along a family of artists on a journey of expression through underground ‘zines, street art, comic books, animated television, high fashion, lowbrow street art, erotica, gore and sculptural masterpieces. Called “SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot,” the show will run concurrently with “Vinyl, The Sound and Culture of Records. ”
For those who’ve visited the OMCA in the past (or are one of their many active members or volunteers), the size and scope of “Giant Robot” will not come as a surprise. If this is your first trip, be sure to wear comfortable shoes and maybe plan to nap when you get home–there is a lot to see.
Nakamura, a guest Curator, founded Giant Robot as a photocopied and stapled ‘zine in 1994. He and Carin Adams(Associate Curator for OMCA) have been planning, and plotting, and bringing together this group of artists from around the world for the past two years.
The efforts of the OMCA tend to amaze both attendees and artists. When I spoke with Nakamura, he said the incredible detail and attention paid by museum staff to pulling the show together and mounting it was impressive, and really made his part in bringing together the talent and filling the space much easier.
So Asian art, or science fiction, or what? One simply cannot pigeonhole this giant exhibit into one genre, or even two genres. There really is just so much: over 800 pieces in all by 15 artists. This show is going to be best absorbed in a full day, or even multiple visits.
Berkeley, Brooklyn, Fresno, Las Vegas, New Jersey, Sacramento, Taiwan, Cambodia or Kanazawa Japan: you name it, art in this show has touched multiple generations across the globe. It will include 2-D and 3-D art, hands-on exhibitions, small works, large works, a custom mural by Andrew Hem, and even a Toyota Scion made into a video game, a la Shin Tanaka. There will be self-taught artists such as Amy Sol who grew up in Korea, and James Jean, who is famous for his amazing illustrations that have graced the covers of everything from DC Comics to Prada wearable art-fashion.
Some of us might feel “outside the circle” of those adorable freaks from Comic-Con and the world of record collecting. After all, who has a Wonder Woman costume just hanging in her closet? Or an original “Jackie Goetroe: Rock it to the Moon” in his box of 45′s? If you’re an older Caucasian suburban woman like this writer, the “Asian pop culture” concept is probably not even on the radar. That said, if you’re ready to try something new, this may be just the ticket.
Most art lovers of any kind are likely familiar with the term or style “Anime,” and with the ideas of flat art, street art and graffiti art. If you have Netflix, maybe you’ve seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, which spotlighted the world-famous street art, and “outlaw” murals by the likes of Bansky that now sell in the millions of dollars.
You’ve probably seen the cute-yet-creepy vinyl toys in gift shops, along with a lot of the “pop art” Asian-style fashions. If you have kids, you’ve also likely heard of the cartoon Adventure Time. (Note: one of the artists is going to be in the show, so that should get a few more pre-teens into a museum willingly.)
Eric Nakamura grew the Giant Robot publication for almost 20 years, until late 2010/early 2011. The brand still thrives. During those 20 years, the magazine reached mass appeal, appealing to a multiracial audience interested in Asian popular culture and more. It became known as the premier magazine in the field.
Nakamura built on that success of the magazine with retail stores and galleries throughout Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, as well as with an online store. In the past 10+ years, he has curated nearly 300 exhibitions. Currently, he works at and owns The Giant Robot Store and The GR2 Gallery, in Los Angeles. The shops offer “pop culture” goods and hold ongoing art exhibitions.
Based in Los Angeles, artist Rob Sato produces rich and detailed imagery. He mixes stark horror with quiet beauty and humor so that his works feel like they inhabit a place between “observed and imagined worlds.”
Sato was born and raised in Sacramento and received his B.F.A. from California College of the Arts (CCA) right here in Oakland. (Side-note: several other alumni from the famous art school will be featured as well, including Ako Castuera , David Choe and Deth P. Sun, a detailed artist and illustrator who currently resides in Berkeley.
I had a chance to speak with Rob Sato. His approachable, laid-back Sacramento demeanor shone through even on the telephone. He told me that Giant Robot “changed his life,” and continues to do so.
“I was a reader of the magazine from early on, picking it up way back when it was a photocopied and staple-bound ‘zine,” Sato said. “I was into the 90s indie rock and DIY culture, and read a ton of ‘zines, most of which had good spirit, but were ultimately kind of disappointing. Giant Robot was different. It was like finding treasure. It energetically covered so much of the stuff that I was already into or wanted to know more about, shed new light on a ton of that, and then also introduced a lot more obscure material from corners of life unknown to me.”
He added, “As much as I loved the magazine, I never thought my work would be something Eric would be into because it’s not nearly as ‘pop culture’-oriented as most of the art that he usually covered, so it was a big surprise to be included in the show. I’m really grateful for the chance he took with me. Eric has this large, enthusiastic, and completely unpretentious appetite for a variety of art and he’s made the world of Giant Robot a pretty unique and homey place for artists and art lovers to gather. A lot of friends have made it into Giant Robot and I’ve made a lot of friends through Giant Robot.”
Sato’s wife, artist and CCA alumni Ako Castuera, is also in the show, and they are talking about ways to collaborate.“We’ve been together for 15 years now, so naturally we influence each other and there’s a lot of long discussions about art,” Sato said, “but we’ve only collaborated a handful of times. Lately our work has been experiencing a fun, interesting crossover, and it feels like the right time to work together.”
Sato is excited about the work he’s showing. He explains: “As far as work in this show goes, I made a series of large works titled ‘Five Movements For Little Guys’ that feature small figures walking through enormous spaces. The figures give the pieces a sense of intimacy despite the implied vastness of the space around them. Many of the figures are based on people I know and care about, which adds a layer of specificity to their character and I hope that some of this personal feeling for them transfers through to the viewer. The smallness of the little walkers hints at the tininess of individual lives, and I hope it conveys humility and maybe even some slightly embarrassing sentimentality.”
Sato’s wife, Ako Castuera, is also very talented and world famous in her own right, especially for fans of Adventure Time, the show she worked on. Eric Nakamura describes Castuera’s work as “super primal” while still looking modern. “I know it without knowing it’s in me.” Although Castuera loved working on Adventure Time, after six seasons, she left and became a full-time sculptor.
Showing concurrently with “Super Awesome,” “Vinyl’s” dynamic exhibit space, designed in partnership with Matthew Passmore, Founder and Principal at the San Francisco-based art and design collective Rebar, features standalone listening stations with turntables and album art displays, and comfortable, lounge-like, social gathering areas. This will allow museum visitors to control their own music experience in the gallery. With opportunities to play albums and participate in music events and performances, “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” invites visitors to become a part of the exhibition itself. This exhibition is organized by Senior Curator of Art René de Guzman. OMCA also partnered with Matthew Passmore of Rebar to co-design the exhibit space. Rebar, a San Francisco-based art and design studio, is known for founding international Park(ing) Day and investigating new forms of public space.
If You Go:
The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)
1000 Oak Street (at 10th Street) Oakland
- $15 general,
- $10 seniors and students with valid ID
- $6 youth ages 9 to 17
- free for members and children 8 and under
Onsite underground parking
One block from the Lake Merritt BART station
Image credit: Ode to California by kozyndan
Originally published in Oakland Local: http://oaklandlocal.com/2014/04/superawesome-art-and-giant-robot-april-19-july-27-2014/