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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“Ten years ago at Telluride, I said on a panel that theatrical distribution was dying. It seemed obvious to me. I was surprised how many in the audience violently objected: ‘People will always want to go to the movies!’ That’s true, but it’s also true that theatrical cinema as we once knew it has died. Theatrical cinema is now Event Cinema, just as theatrical plays and musical performances are Events. No one just goes to a movie. It’s a planned occasion. Four types of Event Cinema remain.
1. Spectacle (IMAX-style blockbusters)
2. Family (cartoon like features)
3. Horror (teen-driven), and
4. Film Club (formerly arthouse but now anything serious).

There are isolated pockets like black cinema, romcom, girl’s-night-out, seniors, teen gross-outs, but it’s primarily those four. Everything else is TV. Now I have to go back to episode five of ‘Looming Tower.'”
~ Paul Schrader

“Because of my relative candor on Twitter regarding why I quit my day job, my DMs have overflowed with similar stories from colleagues around the globe. These peeks behind the curtains of film festivals, venues, distributors and funding bodies weren’t pretty. Certain dismal patterns recurred (and resonated): Boards who don’t engage with or even understand their organization’s artistic mission and are insensitive to the diverse neighborhood in which their organization’s venue is located; incompetent founders and/or presidents who create only obstacles, never solutions; unduly empowered, Trumpian bean counters who chip away at the taste and experiences that make organizations’ cultural offerings special; expensive PR teams that don’t bring to the table a bare-minimum familiarity with the rich subcultural art form they’re half-heartedly peddling as “product”; nonprofit arts organizations for whom art now ranks as a distant-second goal behind profit.”
~ Eric Allen Hatch