The latest exhibit at the Portsmouth Museum of Art has helped define the future direction of the museum, according to its director. And the public seems very pleased with where the museum is heading.
“SugiPOP!: Anime, Manga, Comics and Their Influence on Contemporary Art” is an exhibit that not only celebrates the fusion between Japanese and American contemporary art but seeks to explain the history of this collaboration. The show is curated by Beau Basse of LeBasse Projects in Los Angeles and Katherine Doyle of the Portsmouth Museum of Art. John Wolf is the assistant curator.
The works of 30 artists, both Japanese and American, are showcased and feature examples of anime, manga and comic art. These works can commonly be found in animated movies and comic books.
“There are big fans of comics and manga out there,” said Cathy Sununu, director of the Portsmouth Museum of Art. “We have presented the material in a historic way so even the biggest fans have something to learn. And for those who are not familiar, this is an interesting introduction. It has been well-received.”
With so much material to draw from and wanting to include works that highlighted monumental moments in the art form, the museum staffers had to do some research.
“We built the narrative first, then chose selected works that we believed made those points,” Sununu said. “Walk into any bookstore and there are shelves and shelves of manga. We chose key pieces that had significance.”
Japan has long been a country of fascination for westerners, and its rich history of art dates back centuries. But as the Portsmouth Museum of Art is focused on contemporary art, the exhibit begins in the 18th century and shows woodblock prints from such Japanese icons as Hokusai and Kuniyoshi. But, according to material provided by the museum, manga and anime exploded into the cultural norm following World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As times were so tense, Japanese artists used these media for expression.
Many of these Japanese artists were influenced by American culture. For example, legendary animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, who is most famous for his film Spirited Away, was greatly influenced by Walt Disney. Takashi Murakami, one of the world’s most sought-after artists, has his own studio factory and is known by many as today’s Andy Warhol.
A funny thing happened though as the world got smaller. Suddenly, Japanese art was influencing American artists. Adam Warren, whose work is on display, is one of the first American comic book writers to use the manga style.
“This exhibit is like a visual demonstration of where the world is going,” Sununu said.
“There is an ongoing blend of cross-cultural connections and this is surely a good thing.”
This is evident in the title of the exhibit: “SugiPop!” “Sugi” is the Japanese word for “too much” and represents the extreme characteristics of the anime and manga styles. This is joined with American pop art to create SugiPop.
Culture isn’t the only area being blurred. So too is the line between commercial and fine art. Murakami, for example, designs products for Louis Vuitton and even cell phone caddies. He has gotten rich from the mass production of his work. Yet he also has pieces in the gallery at Versailles.
“A lot of these present-day artists don’t distinguish between these areas,” Sununu said. “They are blurring boundaries.”
The museum is not bound by the limits of visual art either. Sununu is always looking for ways to enhance the visitors’ experience. That is why the museum has activities and programs throughout the entirety of the exhibit, which runs until Jan. 16.
One such event is Kamishibai or Japanese Storytelling. As Sununu explained, the storytellers would ride their bikes to busy intersections where they would park, remove their portable theater and tell a story by using a series of hand-painted illustrations — basically, the first comic books. Sununu said Japanese-American Sam Asano comes into the museum and performs like an old-fashioned Kamishibaiya and shares tales from his own childhood.
“Every show is a learning experience,” Sununu said. “This exhibit is so different from what you normally get in this area. I think people now really understand what we want to do with contemporary art and get where the museum is headed, and this exhibit has put an exclamation point on it.”
“People are thrilled to come to New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “We just have to give them reasons to come here.”
The Portsmouth Museum of Art is at One Harbor Place in Portsmouth, 456-0332, www.portsmouthmfa.org.