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Dennis Mukai
Robert Berman Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Preview by Daniella Walsh

Dennis Mukai, "Poule Mouillée," 2016, sanded acrylic and oil on masonite panel, 30 x 60"

Continuing through March 25, 2017

A portrait by Dennis Mukai bears the caption “ceci n’est pas Ed,” subtitled “Homage to Magritte.” One might also add, “ceci n’est pas une photo,” even though the meticulous detail makes it look like a stunning, antique sepia photograph of Ed Ruscha. This illusion and quick assumption might be bolstered by fans of Mukai’s earlier career as photographer of “the beautiful people.” But, for Mukai photography has often been, and still is, a tool, a means to an end.

A class of ’79 Art Center College of Design illustration major, Mukai became well-known for his photographs that others turned into subsequent paintings of beautiful women to be featured in Playboy and headshots of rock stars. Now, photographs serve as adjunct memory for images that he uses as reference in the intricate painting process that sets him apart. But, more on that later.

In his first show in more than eight years he reveals aspects of his world-view through paintings that distinguish themselves through their unique texture. He calls it “Abrasive Affirmations.” Abrasive refers to his technique of creating an image by subtracting rather than adding medium and, secondarily, to a work’s inherent message. Affirmation infers appreciation of his Japanese culture (he was born in Hiroshima and raised in Southern California), its sometimes darkly-tinged humor and his mastery of subtle social commentary. The latter sometimes appears in languages other than English. “It’s like the texts on shirts I saw when I was traveling, the words may appear beautiful but, out of context, no one knows what they mean,” he explains.

Here one can infer that he takes his work seriously but not necessarily himself; that nothing is what it seems; and that ultimately, it’s up to viewers to figure it all out. Take for example “Poule Mouillée,” a nighttime view of the Louvre vicinity of Paris. The title translates from French literally as “drenched chicken,” but is vernacular for “a coward.” One might ask how lack of courage applies here, but Mukai explains that at his first moment of perception, the nocturnal view stunned something in him and he found the beauty somewhat scary.
Other images speak for themselves. “Mow and Grown,” may record something as benign as a manual lawnmower but, as Mukai placed it under the light of a darkly clouded sky, it looks like a World War I vintage cannon.   
What to make of “Art is Anal” then? It’s a portrait of a somewhat wary looking African-American man wearing a Mickey Mouse hat and Harry Potter glasses. Subtly embedded in the image, is the word “artisanal,” a term overused to the point of banality these days.
The piece the résistance here is “Rage,” a triptych depicting a roadside collision and its aftermath. Hazy suggestion of a city street, wet pavement and an ominous sky turning into complete darkness speak of conflicting forces and dire consequence. On a happier note there is “Until the Cow Comes Home,” a faint outline of a couple kissing with the embedded exhortation to “Kiss,” and “It’s the Sex.”
So, how does Mukai create these paintings? First he takes a custom prepared piece of masonite and coats it with layers of gesso. He adds layers of shades of umber and finally black. Once the surface is dry, he draws desired images in white outlines. And then the real labor of love begins. With a piece of sandpaper rolled into a narrow cone with a pencil-thin tip, he painstakingly rubs away layers of pigment until he achieves the requisite shades/contrast of drama.

Says the artist, “There is not a brush in sight. What I find to be rewarding are things that take time, and then, when I am finally done, it’s WOW.”

Berman Art Projects

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