RAWsalt Gallery’s ‘Aya Kakeda: Other Worlds’ Is an Endearing Exploration of All Things Kawaii

Curated by RAWsalt Gallery director Suzanne Walsh and owner Carla Tesak Arzente, “Aya Kakeda: Other Worlds,” a modest exhibition of work by the Tokyo-born New York artist, walks a divide between the sentimental and the surreal, often falling whimsically into either canyon.

You’ll need some time to decipher what’s happening in the acrylic-and-gouache-on-wood Micro Chan and a smaller, related work on paper, Micro Chan Mini. Kakeda’s mixture of self-healing meditation, Gray’s Anatomy and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory features the internal workings of the human body manned by white blood cells that resemble tiny girls. These girls are chased through arteries, dotted with platelets, by bile-colored, cycloptic protozoa that look like something out of Fantastic Voyage, with the rest of the body’s microscopic flora and fauna visualized via crimson roses, diatom shrubbery and tiny trees of pale, broccoli-shaped alveoli, infused with circulatory systems. Our heroines sit in healing circles or embrace paramecium with affection, ready to engage at a moment’s notice as they float in a chocolatey bloodstream.

Tiny armless aardvarks lay about on mushrooms, tonguing one another and their surreal surroundings in some kind of drug haze in The Land of Shadow: Land Sea Sun. There isn’t a shadow in sight in the triptych, just a river of white snaking its way through the three canvases, past friendly mushroom ladies, to a kaleidoscopic sun bursting with fractured shards of color. The entire milieu is warm and fuzzy, a friendly, drug-induced wink at the audience that can connect the dots, with the remaining painted canvases a clitoral sun cresting atop mountainous labia, baby unicorns getting hugs or sleeping inside something that vaguely resembles a penis-shaped amoeba and another sun, this time with a face, navigating its way through a field of rainbow-suppurating fungi.

Kakeda’s lone graphite-on-paper piece, Spirit, feels less stoned, resembling fanciful prepatory drawings for a Hayao Miyazaki film, with its small female heroine and its gargantuan animal (a black cat here), who collects children when not hiding in a forest too small to hide its bulk.

I connected most with the tenderness of Kakeda’s ceramic work: Hajimuri (The Beginning) is a small child snugly wrapped in a sweater, its mouth open and eyes closed, talking in its sleep as another ceramic of pink Japanese lettering floats in the air nearby. The pink squishiness of the airborne Kana reminds one of levitating cotton candy viscera, as if the child’s raw emotion was spilling out into the atmosphere. The title of another piece, Dog Who Forgot Her Pants, made me laugh out loud, and the sculpture itself furthers that joy: A tiny brown dog, floppy ears sticking out of its cowl, covers its eyes in embarrassment, naked legs pulled up and bent at the knee as if she’s being tickled. It’s the kind of work that will draw out an “awwwww,” even if you’re not normally disposed to uttering such fawning. In Reflection, there’s a small, flat pond and a figure in black pulling a Narcissus, this figure unfortunately unable to see himself in the water. Interpreted as an individual losing face, the piece can pack a depressing wallop, but a lighter interpretation could see it more positively, as a person unaware of who they are but still searching.

The artist moves into different territory with her installation based on Shinto creation myths, ISE GODDESS. The grotesqueries present in the source stories aren’t on view in Kakeda’s fluffy-bunny version, her roughhewn gods looking as if they’ve been hacked out of Play-Doh and aimed at delighting children. Some are unfinished, flat, while others are shiny with glaze; most are decorated with tiny, multicolored puffballs designed to resemble socks or loincloths. Remedial at best, they lack the polish of the rest of her work, more in progress and still needing fine-tuning than something an adult might consider buying to adorn a child’s bedroom wall.

Finally, your enjoyment or admiration of Kakeda’s work will depend a lot on your tolerance for kawaii, the Japanese fondness for the cute and manipulatively endearing. On the surface, I found her work sentimental and comforting, similar in a way to the recent obsession with Pok√©mon Go. Is this a walk back to childhood to avoid the scariness of the world we live in?

I don’t think so. In the end, the work is less about giving up and cocooning away than an active embrace of the positive among the terrorist shootings, political squabbles and internet rage du jour. To my way of thinking, anything gentle and kind should be uplifted and considered something of worth, even if it feels potentially lopsided in the never-ending battle between the somber and the shallow. Kakeda’s work brings us back to decency, compassion, imagination and joy. If we reject that for the politics of seriousness, then what are we fighting for in the first place?

“Aya Kakeda: Other Worlds” at RAWsalt Gallery, 1492 S. Coast Hwy., Ste. 3, Laguna Beach, (949) 715-5554; saltfineart.net. Open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free.

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