Portsmouth Museum Goes SugiPOP!

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Yoshitomo Nara, Little Kamikaze, 2009

Yoshitomo Nara, Little Kamikaze, 2009

Yoshitaka Amano, Candy Girls 17, 2010

Yoshitaka Amano, Candy Girls 17, 2010

Anna Koon, aka a2n2, painting a snowboard.

Anna Koon, aka a2n2, painting a snowboard.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I know nothing about Japanese anime (animated films) and manga (comics). And I know even less about their influence on contemporary American art. I’m guessing a lot of New England art lovers are in the same boat.

That’s why I’m so impressed that the pioneering Portsmouth Museum of Art has seen fit once again to stray outside the comfort zone of regional viewers to present SugiPOP!: Anime, Manga, Comics and Their Influence on Contemporary Art (through January 16), an eye-opening exhibition of cutting edge art and illustration by some 30 artists.

At 61, my personal frame of reference for the big-eyed characters that populate Japanese anime and manga are Betty Boop, Bambi, and the doe-eyed urchins made popular in the 1950s by kitsch artist Margaret Keane. For SugiPOP!, Portsmouth Museum of Art curator Katherine Doyle teamed up with Beau Basse of LeBasse Projects, a gallery of new and emerging art in Culver City, California, to bring some of the stars of anime and anime-influenced pop art east to New Hampshire. And to create an historical context for this new art, the curator also arranged to borrow classic Edo period woodblock prints from the University of New Hampshire Musuem of Art.

“The art forms of Anime and Manga have had a huge impact on contemporary art and particularly global pop-culture in general,” writes co-curator Beau Basse. “While many contemporary artists are not obviously influenced by the Japanese forms, upon closer inspection a viewer can begin seeing how the style has been absorbed and re-imagined by many an artist.”

Sugi is Japanese for “too much,” but I doubt SugiPOP! will be too much for New England viewers as long as they approach it with open eyes and open mind, putting aside the Western either/or mindset that wants to divide art into good/bad, fine/applied, high/low, etc. Maybe that”s why the new Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art (Just Looking, Feb. 4, 2010) dropped the Fine from its name so quickly. And I assume younger viewers, those brought up on global hip hop culture, will have no problem at all appreciating and enjoying this celebration of new cross-cultural art.

Snowboarders in particular will want to see SugiPOP! as, in addition to new work by established artists such as Murakami,Yoshitomo Nara, Edwin Ushiro, Gary Baseman, Hush, and Linkin Park lead singer Mike Shinoda, the exhibition also features snowboards painted in the anime/manga style by New England regional artists Raul Gonzalez, Natacha Sochat, Kathy Halamka, Lara Halamka, Anna Koon (a2n2), Jace Smith, Boriana Kantcheva and Elaine Bay. The snowboard top sheet paintings are a collaboration among the Portsmouth museum, Forum Snowboards, Dekal, Inc., and Waterville Valley Ski Area, where the painted snowboards will be featured in a pop-up gallery in January. (The Sununu family led a group of investors that recently purchased Waterville Valley. Cathy Sununu is the director of the Portsmouth Museum of Art).

Beyond bringing exotic new currents in contemporary art to coastal New England, SugiPOP! underscores the vitality of local alternative art beyond the established conventions of New England landscapes. Natacha Sochat, a Manchester NH physician, and Kathy Halamka, for example, opened NK Gallery in Boston just last year to present “exhibitions that mirror the diversity of the world and aims at giving voice to the pluralism that continually enriches contemporary art and ideas.” Lara Halamka is Kathy Halamka’s daughter, a senior at Wellesley High School. That’s about as current as an art museum gets.

[Portsmouth Museum of Art, One Harbour Place, Portsmouth NH, 603-436-0332.]


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