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Don’t let the street renovations and absence of activity at Rollins College stop curious art lovers from spending quality time with the Painting for Joy: New Japanese Painting in the 1990s exhibit, as the days count down to its July 27 close.

Multiple gallery spaces in the back of the renovated museum are sparsely populated by large, brilliantly colored canvases, allowing the cartoonish content to dominate by sheer scale alone. All the images represent nine famed artists born in postwar Japan in the late ’50s and ’60s, whose styles helped to define Japanese pop art in the 1990s.

Most familiar to many viewers will be the wall devoted to highly marketed Yoshitomo Nara. The text accompanying his sought-after pieces offers an explanation of the artist’s curious appeal: “Belying the native innocence of childhood, Nara’s figures are anything but defenseless. As they peer up and out of their circumstances there is frequently cunning in the eye.” That sense of deviousness can be sobering, too, as in “In the White Room II,” in which one of his “girls” stands before a noose.

In fact, “cute but dark” sums up the exhibit as a whole, and that’s the point. These artists came of age in an era that was influenced by a kaleidoscope of media and shadowed by nuclear realities. The catalog from the curators at the Japan Foundation explains that this traveling show (it’s been circulating since the late ’90s) “is an attempt to show how young Japanese artists have understood and tried to further develop artistic expression in their genre with its long tradition in the final decade of the twentieth century, a time of rapid developments in information networks and communications technology.”

Captured in this collection is the blend of Japanese and American culture as experienced by the artists, such as Takashi Murakami, whose series of paintings titled “The King’s Seat of Two Dimensional Perspective” reveals complex visual storytelling with nods to Japanese tradition and American playfulness. And there’s no mistaking the resemblance of Taro Chiezo’s “Imaginary Mountain” (1997) to a certain comic superhero enjoying a big-screen revival this summer. Who was influencing whom?

Painting for Joy captures the big bang of the cultural dichotomy that grew between two media-savvy superpowers prior to the new millennium – a fusion that continues to explode exponentially in the new century.

(Use the unofficial Rollins entrance near the Fred Stone Theatre to find parking and avoid detours.)


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