Misako Inaoka’s critters have populated the Bay Area art scene for a decade. A native of Japan and a graduate of both the Rhode Island School of Design and Mills College in Oakland, Inaoka has become known as a master of mashups. Using random odds and ends, the artist focuses on bridging the gap between what she calls “the natural and the artificial.” By accentuating the peculiarities of the natural world — a giraffe’s neck, a sea anemone, an oversized pea blossom — Inaoka crafts a wildly clever commentary on the way that these conundrums continue to exist in the modern social world, demonstrating that the two exist entirely together. In Inaoka’s universe, the natural world is no more or less absurd than the artificial, and just as in her art, the two blend together in some bizarre semblance of harmony.
Johansson Projects has housed Inaoka’s art before. The gallery’s trademark moss ceiling was originally part of Inaoka’s premier show there. And while the ceiling may exist in its former glory, the artist’s current exhibit, “Back Domain,” is a marked departure from her past style. While she still hits her stride in the mixed-media mode, this round of Inaoka’s critters, crawlers, doodads and trinkets lack the industrial steel present in her past exhibits. Stripped of lightbulbs and bolts, her current pieces are still mashups, this time painted over in thick layers of glaze, flocking and velvet-fringed upholsteries. Inaoka’s designs have come home in this exhibit, looking more akin to hunting-lodge chotchkies than those of her former designs. There are rocking chairs with monkey arms for legs, flocked feline door handles, goats trapped within massive blossoms, donkeys on stilts, potato sack figures covered in garlands and sofa cushion legs with hooves for feet, all of which are composed entirely of odds and ends. Inaoka appears to have rummaged through a children’s toy chest, scuba dived, hiked and hunted for these bits of inspiration. Her treasure hunts are wide and varied, and the outcomes are incredibly playful.
And while many of these pieces look like they should be placed next to a hummel doll on a cabinet shelf, this aspect of the work is truly Inaoka’s genius. Her designs range in size and tone, all assembled elegantly enough to pass as ordinary at first glance. The humor of her work exists in its camouflage. The bodies of the critters are accentuated and assisted in shape by bits of the nature: leaves, pinecones, seashells, coral, branches, exaggerated gracefully enough to make it a truly artful application of method. At the exit of Johansson Projects is what appears to be a moosehead with branches for antlers and feathers for a face. It’s a true juxtaposition of the animal, the home and the environment, and the irony of the experience is not lost on Inaoka.
While not all of the exhibit’s pieces can boast the same sense of poetry as the feathered moose, they are for the most part very clever imitations of these three conflicting worlds. Inaoka’s ability to find inspiration in shape is truly astonishing. Her critters’ forms flow ceaselessly into one another, whether it is a sea anemone to a children’s toy or a cougar’s head to a branch. The pieces defy the oft-clunky bonds of mixed-media, the haphazard mashes, opting for a cleaner, subtler, less didactic take on the artistic mode.
It is fair to say that this glazed and glued, flocked and fleeced thingamabob world that Inaoka has created marks a triumphant return for Inaoka. The moss on the ceiling may be the exact same, but much like her baby goats and tree branches, Inaoka’s artform is still growing. And getting to trace her sprouts of genius is a wonderful thing.