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 remember very much the iconography and the images and the statues in church were very emotional for me. Just the power of that, and even still — just seeing prayer card, what that image can evoke. I have a lot of friends that are involved in the esoteric, and I know some girls in New York that are also into the supernatural. I don’t feel that I have that gift. But I am leaning towards mysticism… Maybe men are more practical, maybe they don’t give into that as much… And then also, they don’t convene in the same way that women do. But I don’t know, I am not a man, I don’t want to speak for men. For me, I tend to gravitate towards people who are open to those kinds of things. And the idea for my film, White Echo, I guess stemmed from that — I find that the girls in New York are more credible. What is it about the way that they communicate their ideas with the supernatural that I find more credible? And that is where it began. All the characters are also based on friends of mine. I worked with Refinery29 on that film, and found that they really invest in you which is so rare in this industry.”
Chloë Sevigny

“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier