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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“I had this friend who was my roommate for a while. She seemed really normal in every way except that she wouldn’t buy shampoo. She would only use my shampoo. And after a year it’s like, “When are you going to buy your own shampoo?” It was her way of digging in her heels. It was a certain sense of entitlement, or a certain anger. It was so interesting to me why she wouldn’t buy her own fucking shampoo. It was like,“I’m gonna use yours.” It was coming from a place of “You have more money than me, I just know it”—whether I did or I didn’t. Or maybe she felt, “You have a better life than me,” or “You have a better room than me in the apartment.” It was hostile. And she was a really close friend! There was never any other shampoo and I knew she was washing her hair. And clearly I have a thing about shampoo, as we see in ‘Friends with Money.’ I had some nice shampoo. So I found that psychologically so interesting how a person can function normally in every way and yet have this aberrance—it’s like a skip in the record. It was a sense of entitlement, I think. I put that in Olivia’s character, too, with her stealing someone’s face cream.”
Nicole Holofcener

“When books become a thing, they can no longer be fine.

“Literary people get mad at Knausgård the same way they get mad at Jonathan Franzen, a writer who, if I’m being honest, might be fine. I’m rarely honest about Jonathan Franzen. He’s an extremely annoying manI have only read bits and pieces of his novels, and while I’ve stopped reading many novels even though they were pretty good or great, I have always stopped reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels because I thought they were aggressively boring and dumb and smug. But why do I think this? I didn’t read him when he was a new interesting writer who wrote a couple of weird books and then hit it big with ‘The Corrections,’ a moment in which I might have picked him up with curiosity and read with an open mind; I only noticed him once, after David Foster Wallace had died, he became the heir apparent for the Great American Novelist position, once he had had that thing with Oprah and started giving interviews in which he said all manner of dumb shit; I only noticed him well after I had been told he was An Important Writer.

“So I can’t and shouldn’t pretend that I am unmoved by the lazily-satisfied gentle arrogance he projects or when he is given license to project it by the has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy development of him being constantly crowned and re-crowned as Is He The Great American Writer. What I really object to is this, and if there’s anything to his writing beyond it, I can’t see it and can’t be bothered. Others read him and tell me he’s actually a good writer—people whose critical instincts I have learned to respect—so I feel sure that he’s probably a perfectly fine, that his books are fine, and that probably even his stupid goddamned bird essays are probably also fine.

“But it’s too late. He has become a thing; he can’t be fine.”
~ Aaron Bady