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The surreal work of artist Takashi Murakami is coming to the MCA

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

Filled with smiling flowers, cute cartoon creatures and vibrant colors, the work of Tokyo artist Takashi Murakami is awash in the hyperstylized visual influence of anime and manga. His work has graced the cover of a Kanye West album (Graduation), and he’s designed countless pastel-hued, cartoon-covered Louis Vuitton handbags, but Murakami’s new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art is a departure from his various high-profile collaborations, focusing almost exclusively on his paintings.

The exhibit’s title, “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” suggests a new beginning, referencing a cephalopod’s ability to jettison an injured limb and then regenerate one. “I really feel like in many ways he’s been misunderstood as an artist,” says MCA chief curator Michael Darling. “People think of all the blingy, commercialized aspects of his work, but [they’re] missing this deep grounding in Japanese art history and culture.”

"Tan Tan Bo Puking - a.k.a. Gero Tan"
Courtesy Galerie Perrotin

Comprising 50 pieces from throughout Murakami’s career, the show includes some subdued, decidedly traditional late-’80s paintings that have never been displayed and contrast sharply with the kinetic, cartoonish style he developed in the ’90s. Amid the surreal imagery of paintings like Super Nova and Tan Tan Bo, wall text outlines specific allusions to Japanese art, folklore and culture that permeate Murakami’s work.

Murakami has created new work specifically for this show, including its namesake: a gigantic 114-foot-long canvas (made up of at least 35 panels) picturing a massive octopus that wraps around an entire wall of the gallery. It’s accompanied by a new sculpture that takes the form of a monolithic water spout covered in graffiti—a somber reference to the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Arriving at the MCA as the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary and prepares to open newly renovated community engagement spaces and a restaurant helmed by chef Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” is another attempt to draw new audiences to the institution. Murakami’s flashy, imaginative style should help accomplish that goal, but once inside, viewers will have to grapple with the artist’s explicit and brazen tendencies—which promise to make this the most talked-about show of the summer. 

“The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” opens at the MCA on June 6. 

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