They are so bright and busy that you might have a hard time focusing on them at first. And even when you think you've got it, you never know for sure. The one thing that's clear is that they are posters, and that most are bold and bright enough to cause a mild case of overstimulation, if not hyperventilation. But posters they are, and although they fill up the more than ample spaces of Loyola University's Collins Diboll Gallery atop its postmodern castle of a library building, they still represent only a portion of Tadanori Yokoo's output over the past decade.
Who is this guy? Yokoo is a Japanese institution, a trendsetter and visionary whose work has been an integral part of the Tokyo art and culture scene for the past 35 years. Pioneering his zappy pop style, Yokoo's posters of the early 1960s anticipated psychedelic art, and it might even be argued that his work influenced such American heavyweights as Peter Max and Milton Glazer, although he himself makes no such claims, and it is perhaps more reasonable to merely assert that they all affected each other. The tone was set with his autobiographical Tadanori Yokoo poster, which premiered at an exhibition of Tokyo's Persona group in 1965, and which seemed to foreshadow the pop-psyche poster style of the hippie revolution in San Francisco, London and elsewhere in the late 1960s. So much so that you almost expect to see bold-faced art nouveau lettering promoting Grateful Dead or the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.
Now, a quarter of a century and a decade later, Yokoo is still as pop-psyche as ever, yet he keeps it very fresh, somehow. Perhaps that is because, with him, it is not so much a style as a sensibility, something that is always changing while remaining much the same. Now he does it digitally, though his vision is not much different from his traditionally executed paintings, such as the ones seen at his Contemporary Arts Center show in 1996. As devoted to diaries and documentation as he is to his phantasmagorical style of design, his chronicle of his New Orleans experiences led to an entire show of paintings, photos and posters called Crescent Carnival in New Orleans at the Okanoyama Museum of Art, replete with 3-D Virgin Marys and giant bottles of Tabasco sauce (none of which are seen here, although he did design another poster for this show).
Are kitsch and spirituality compatible? Well, of course, if the history of Western culture is any guide. But are they really compatible? Many of Yokoo's posters are as luminously kitschy as a Saturday night on Times Square (by which I mean the old Times Square, as it used to be), yet there is also something ethereal about them. A poster titled Toppan Multimedia Fair '97 features the Himalayas blasted by lightning and radiating cosmic fire. Interspersed with images of Tibetan deities and views of the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa, as well as "Shambala"-- the name of the mythic kingdom that came to be known as "Shangri La"-- in big block type, the effect borders on banality yet is somehow sort of sincere, or even vaguely uplifting.
Like Peter Max, who got burned out and spent much of the 1970s and 1980s meditating, Yokoo decided to devote his life to spiritual pursuits about a quarter of a century ago. Only in his case, it was a car crash, not burnout, that did it. A Zen devotee, he routinely produces posters for Shinto shrines as well and doesn't hesitate to incorporate even the relatively alien Tibetan tradition in his work, when the occasion arises. Yokoo seems able to mix worldly content with spiritual aspirations somewhat more effectively than most Western commercial artists (Absolut vodka and Cigar Club posters notwithstanding).
The poster for this Yokoo's Posters show at Loyola features a Japanese mother and daughter in traditional kimonos standing by a railing as a traditional Mississippi River steamboat surges by. The theme is traditional, but their faces are expressionistic masks under a darkening cubist sky, and once again it's that mixture of balance and dissonance that creates the intrigue, a kind of tango between the gods of proportion and the demons of distortion. With that in mind, it is interesting to compare Yokoo's posters with the Edo period scrolls depicting birds, trees and flowers that are on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Despite all the quirks and tweaks in Yokoo's work, the underlying aesthetic is not all that different in either case. For the Japanese, nature meant both continuity and change, and in the case of Tadanori Yokoo, the designs may change yet the underlying rhythms remain much the same.