The Giant Robot retrospective at the Oakland Museum is best described by its title, SuperAwesome. It’s a massive exhibition showcasing the visual culture created by Giant Robot and more specifically its co-curator Eric Nakamura, the man behind the magazine, stores and other ventures. Though the magazine went out of print and the SF store and gallery had to close, it’s important to see museum-level attention paid to an indie arts organization that grew from humble beginnings to have a broad influence on young generations. The exhibition, which was organized in time for the magazine’s 20th anniversary, is evidence that the vibes created by Giant Robot live on in spirit and thoughtful curation, which is demonstrated by the fact that most of the work is new and was commissioned especially for the exhibit.
Giant Robot was built on Asian pop culture inspirations, and the Oakland museum credits the magazine with bringing “Asian, trans-Pacific popular culture to mainstream audiences in the United States.” The exhibit, which vibrates with emotion and nostalgia for the early days of GR, includes tons of ephemera, vinyl robot toys customized by artists, and a zine-making station where you can staple your own memento together.
There is humorous work, like Sean Chao’s punny dioramas that play on words like “eye-popping,” for example, which is represented by an eyeball-headed character squeezing bubble wrap. His little sculptures made me LOL for real. Some of the artists’ work speaks to the Asian-American experience of being stereotyped; for example, graphic novelist Adrian Tomine’s story, printed large on a wall, is about being compared to Long Duck Dong, a character from the movie Sixteen Candles that’s more like a racial stereotype than a real person, and then meeting the actor who played Dong in the movie later in life. The show features mostly Asian-American artists, and there are other cultural commentaries, like Shizu Saldamando’s quote about her figurative drawings: “We’re all part of a world that’s constantly changing and morphing. There’s no “I’m a real Asian,” or “I’m a real Mexican. The experience is so varied.”
Another notable artist with work on display is Rob Sato, who I’ve been a fan of since I read a funny interview with him in Juxtapoz Magazine. His work for the Giant Robot exhibit, which is stunning in person, consists of a few huge paintings on scroll-like paper with hoards of tiny people migrating through curious landscapes.
Sato is not the only one dabbling in curious landscapes, as the artist couple known as Kozyndan made a massive mural installation in a corner of the gallery that covers the floor with a colorful, spiritual, nature-loving dream world. Equally impressive but on a different scale were Oakland artist Deth P. Sun’s 200 five-inch square paintings of his signature animal character in different scenarios inspired by epic film scenes.
Ray Potes held it down for his fellow street photography kings with a huge wall of photographs he curated from his collective, Hamburger Eyes. I loved seeing their solid black-and-white images printed in a huge installation format. And if you’re into things that are huge, you won’t be disappointed by David Choe’s enormous mural (scroll down to see a video of him painting the piece). When local fans found out Choe was painting on-site at the museum, they mobbed the front desk with snacks, begging to get next to him. The funny interview I read with Rob Sato was conducted by Choe five years ago and points to the camaraderie of this group of artists; many of them have worked together throughout their careers.
Another Bay Area-born legend, Barry McGee, has a few small works in the show accompanied by story about how Nakamura was looking for a spiritually-themed cover image, and knew McGee was traveling in Japan, so he requested a Buddha drawn in the artist’s style. Other highlights include a Giant Robot car outfitted with a projector and gaming system, so you can sit in the front seat and play to your heart’s content; and Andrew Hem’s gigantic painting, I Think That Possibly Maybe I’m Falling For You, installed on the outdoor entry level of the museum, like a welcome banner for the showstopping exhibit inside.
SuperAwesome is on view at the Oakland Museum view through July 27, 2014. For more information on the exhibit and museum hours, visit museumca.org/exhibit/superawesome-art-and-giant-robot.