I saw Misaki Kawai’s work for the first time in 2004 when one of her pieces was part of a group show at Deitch Projects, the coolest New York City contemporary art gallery at the time. I remember clearly that instinctive feeling I got of being in front of something that had a lot more raw talent, heart and humor than half the other things I had seen in that show, and perhaps elsewhere, in a long time. Kawai's colorful and dynamic pieces have evolved but they continue to engage and move me while her career has calmly and steadily been on the rise. Ever since that Deitch exhibit, her work has been included in a variety of solo and group shows around the world including the Institute of Contemporary Art ICA Boston, The Watarium Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, P.S. 1 MOMA Contemporary Art Center in New York City, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, The Watermill Center in New York and The Children’s Museum of Art in New York City.
In the same tradition of great painters who settled in the Hamptons during the winter months to work without interruption and take advantage of the large spaces and one of the most beautiful lights of the Northeast (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell are just a few who come to mind), Kawai and her husband, photographer Justin Waldron, set camp in a modernist-style home and adjacent studio in East Hampton. Kawai's studio space allowed her to produce as many pieces as she wanted in as many different formats and sizes as she would need (including large, medium and small canvases along with super cool furniture pieces).
While admiring the explosion of saturated colors, mostly primary but ranging from deep black to hot pink, it dawned on me that Kawai’s work also fits the description of a contemporary expressionist. She’s constantly exploring the subject matter of the objects that surround her day-to-day life and the way she sees them, adding a touch of humor with shapes, words or hashtags. There is a lot of her internal world that she gives to us spectators, but it is ultimately the unexpected that we find in her work that keeps us guessing and on our toes. For example: one of the pieces in the studio is a large yellow canvas depicting several animals that look like crocodiles or iguanas, but Kawai aptly points out that the green creatures are dinosaurs taken from video games. When I look again, some of the characters on the canvas remind me of the days when I incessantly played Pac-Man, which must have also been on Kawai’s radar since Atari is a Japanese company and we are both from the same generation.
The caricaturesque nature of her work is so intertwined with the aesthetics and graphics that are commonplace in modern Japan - where cartoons are used as graphics for so many products, retail spaces, signage and more. She not only agrees but emphasizes that in her hometown of Osaka, which is known for being the Japanese capital of comedy, that even when bad things happen in life, people will try to make joke out of it. And that seems to be exactly Misaki Kawai’s philosophy of life and perspective on her surroundings. I left inspired and uplifted, finding optimism in everything I saw that day and trying, even if for a day or two, to emulate Kawai’s vantage point in life.
Eric Firestone Gallery
May 14 – 17, 2015