After the U.S. Navy forced Japan to forgo two-and-a-half centuries of relative isolation in 1853, porcelain, lacquerware, and woodblock prints began flooding westward, launching the Japonisme aesthetic movement. In the 20th century, another Japanese export seized the global imagination: Pokémon, a wildly disparate collection of pocket creatures that spawned a multibillion-dollar empire.
An exhibition at Japan House Los Angeles merges these cultural phenomena, colliding traditional and modern, kitsch and refined. “Pokémon X Kogei,” which runs through early 2024, presents interpretations of the fantastical creatures by 20 Japanese artists spanning pottery, metalwork, textiles, and mixed media.
The show, which debuted at Japan’s National Crafts Museum in Ishikawa this spring, offers a poetic rather than a historical explanation for comingling the two worlds. The elements into which the Pokémon are organized, such as fire, water, ground, and electric (there are 18 in total), are reflected in the processes of art making. A vase, for instance, is formed from ground and water, and then fired in an electric kiln. Japan House also likens the endeavor of Pokémon trainers in rearing their digital pets to the process of artisans learning their craft.
“Pokémon X Kogei” is organized into three sections, each of which represents a different artistic approach to playing with the Pokémon universe.
In Appearance, artists turn the digital physical, recreating the form and personality of Pokémon with attention paid to their skin, fur, and movement. Sadamasa Imai’s cranky-looking , for instance, hones in on the rugged texture of its skin and the heaviness of its gait.
With Stories the artists inhabit the world of the Pokémon, offering a more abstract take on their lives and journeys. One offering comes from textile designer Reiko Sudo, who explores the franchise’s most iconic creature, Pikachu, dangling from an amber forest of lace that plays with traditional paper-cutting.
The final section, Life, brings Pokémon into the everyday objects—something that may already be a reality for many of the visitors. The works here, admittedly, are rather more elevated than a mug plastered with Squirtle. Keiko Masumoto, for example, used a wood-fired kiln, the likes of which originate from the 12th century, to create a range of fire element Pokémon including Charizard and Vulpix.
“We’re excited to present this unique collaboration between one of the biggest entertainment properties originating in Japan and some of the country’s most talented craft artists,” Japan House Los Angeles’ president Yuko Kaifu said. “It will art enthusiasts and gamers alike.”
For a franchise born in the 1990s and now successfully embraced by a new generation, chances are Kaifu’s right.
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