By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: KUSAMA

Kusama is the top-selling female artist in the world, her art, which frequently features dots, mirrors,or both. As we learn from the film Kusama, directed by Heather Lenz, her journey to acceptance and fame in the art world was not an easy one. Lenz begins, more or less, at the beginning – in Kusama’s dark childhood, defined by the disapproval of her parents, in particular her mother, who forbade her daughter to be an artist – before taking the audience on a journey through Kusama’s later life and growth as an artist.

Kusama has said that her work, which centers broadly around the idea of the self being obliterated by patterns, reflects the hallucinations of repetitive dots and other patterns that have plagued her since she was a young child. She began painting at the age of ten, eventually corresponding with Georgia O’Keefe as a young adult before moving to New York City in 1958, where she became a part of the art scene there, staging “Happenings” in protest of the war and showcasing her work in exhibitions.

From 1958 to 1973 was a productive period in Kusama’s life artistically, yet even as her work clearly influenced (some might say was copied by) some of the better-known male artists in the NYC scene at that time, Kusama could not garner the level of attention and support that surrounded her white male peers. When her depression finally got bad enough, she retreated back home to Japan – where she was further rejected as “scandalous” for her art – especially the Happenings, which frequently involved nude dancers and live painting on nude models. In 1976, she checked herself into the mental hospital where she still lives voluntarily today; her studio is a couple of blocks from the hospital, and she paints there every day.

As far as the art world was concerned, when Kusuma moved back to Japan that was that; she all but disappeared from the art world, and might, like so many other female artists, have been lost to its history entirely, had not curator Alexandra Munroe brought her back into the forefront in 1989 with the exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective,” the first critical survey of the artist’s work, which thrust Kusama and her work back into the spotlight.

As far as documentaries go, this is straightforward – an homage to the artist and her work, not a scandalous tell-all – but the subject matter is so fascinating that it doesn’t matter; it’s almost as though the film itself, with its basic, linear structure, is content to play straight man to its colorful subject, allowing Kusama, her life and her art to tell their own story. In a Sundance year packed with strong female filmmakers and documentary subjects, Kusama shines a light on one of the most fascinating, original and enduringly influential artists of our time.

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“If there are theories about me, I’d rather not know. Astrophysics – now that’s fascinating. String theory, worm holes, the expanding universe, the Big Bang versus the Big Bounce – those are the kind of theories that make you feel like living and understanding the mystery of the world. Film theory is just a pain in the ass.”
~ Claire Denis

“I had a knockoff Michael Kors bag that said MLK instead of MK. Jada told me that I shouldn’t have knockoff stuff. I told her that my philosophy is, Whatever the bag costs, I should be able to keep that amount of cash in the bag. If it’s a $300 purse, I have to put $300 in cash in that purse. I do not want a bag that is more expensive than the cash I have to put in it. Things are going good for me now, so I am graduating to your Fendis and your Guccis. But I better have the cash equivalent, or I’m not buying the purse. And if things start to go wrong, I’m going right back to my knockoffs. When you’re somebody like me, who’s been homeless, clothes are not that important. Clothes are not a roof over my head, food in my ­stomach, my family’s health—that’s what money is for. But fashion helps get more money. So, we ride.”
~ Tiffany Haddish