Misaki Kawai‘s work is insane. In a good way. When Sweden’s LOYAL gallery sent us these images from her new solo show, “Wet Shiny Surprise,” we were taken with their use of geometry and pattern — not to mention their resemblance to Memphis design — but we had no idea the Japanese-born, New York–based artist also made paintings of weightlifting robots, surfing octopuses, and people pooping in the woods. What unites all of Kawai’s art, from the beautiful to the bizarre, is her talent for blending childlike imagery with absurdist humor, a quality she suspects might have something to do with spending her childhood in Osaka, the center of Japan’s comedy scene. But to the extent that her pieces seem like windows onto a strange and addictive parallel world, she gets most of her inspiration from navigating this one: After a post-graduate trip to Turkey, Nepal, and Thailand left her “greatly influenced by handmade dolls, textiles, and low-quality manufactured objects,” Kawai began traveling regularly, collecting both physical and experiential scraps and incorporating them into her paintings and sculptures. When we interviewed her for this story, she had just finished opening the show at LOYAL and had moved on to Beijing and Mongolia, where she was riding camels and investigating the local dress. What she’ll do with that fodder, we can only imagine.
Your father was an architect — are you inspired by any design or decorative arts movements? These paintings have a post-modernist look.
“I like design but I don’t know anything about it. Probably I’ve seen some simple ’80s designs somewhere… And I like the Memphis, Tennessee song.”
What role does pattern play in these pieces?
“Maybe as germs on his sweater?”
What’s your process for creating these characters? Do they start out as simple shapes and then gain a personality? Or do you start with a story and then try to bring it to life?
“I play with simple shapes and then add some nice hair styles, peanut men, etc. Keeping them simple and abstract adds more mystery, so anyone looking at the piece can start to wonder about it. That way is more fun than creating a story behind each work.”
Tell me a bit about the materiality of the paintings, and how you incorporated 3-D elements like bits of yarn or paper. How were the colorful rag borders made?
“My drawings are always simple. So I started to think I could make some minimal works that use other materials as well. I traveled to Asia at the beginning of this year and collected things like fabric from a little village in the south of China, Tibetan traditional fabrics, Nepali rice bags, school paper from India, and Thai minority people’s costumes. I also had some findings from flea markets in Sweden. I chop them and glue them all together. I’m always looking for materials wherever I go. Last week I was in Beijing and an old homeless woman was selling uncut sheets of crazy-color printed game cards — that was all she had with her, and I got them all. For me, low-quality materials have more character than perfect materials.”
Are there places you find yourself going back to for inspiration, or if you feel like you need a new influence in your work?
“I travel between my exhibitions now, always looking for inspiration. I rode a two-hump camel in Mongolia today. The humps are so cute. I will ride them, no car.”
What’s your studio like? What kinds of things do you keep around you while you’re working?
“I like to have old craft and toy books and funny poofy dolls that I get inspired by. Wherever I travel I go find books; I don’t really have artist books. I only hang my friends works in the house, not in my studio. But goofy stuff is everywhere.”
Do you have any kind of personal rituals that have become part of your artistic process?
“I don’t like rules — I just play around with materials and move my hands. I don’t think too much to make. I only plan when I make big installations, but the planing isn’t so much about the details: I see what’s happening and keep on moving.”
Are there other disciplines you’re interested in experimenting with? I know you love fashion, for one thing.
“I already cook and make music, videos, and performances. At the moment I like fashion that’s functional, especially when I got to the mountains [of Mongolia]. But I’m still not used to wearing black clothes, so I don’t have black clothes. I’ll wear the village costume and ride a donkey to go get cucumbers. It would be fun to collaborate with a clothing line.”