Painting the Family Dynamics of Toys and Food

LOS ANGELES – “Bananas don’t really go with Darth Vader, except in parenting.” The statement begins with the press release on Ulala Imai’s current solo exhibition Amazing in Nonaka-Hill, the first Japanese female painter in the United States.

“Banana Ambassador” (2021) portrays a Darth Vader action figure standing in the middle of a row of bananas. The figure’s tense head and relenting demeanor greet the viewer, but Imai’s choice of Darth Vader as ambassador suggests an underlying threat, though the banana circle that surrounds the figure comfortably encloses him.

The story of Darth Vader is also the story of a parent and child contradicting each other and the failure of the parents in the child’s eyes. The painting depicts the family as a field of tension between love and duty, intimacy and alienation.

If “Banana Ambassador,” installed in a hallway in the center of the gallery directly across from the shop windows, is a key to the exhibition, the remaining 27 oil paintings expand the nuances of the family as a unit that both envelops and restricts.

Installation view by Ulala Imai: Amazing in Nonaka-Hill, Los Angeles

“Melody” (2020) shows a light yellow teddy bear lying over a banana as if it were a deck chair, but the bear’s body is too long and stiff to fit exactly. The bear appears in several other works, accompanied by a stuffed monkey with a big smile in “Hold” and “Promenade” (both 2020). In the first case, the monkey weighs the horizontal body of its companion, which is turned towards the viewer. The bear’s empty eyes and downward-pointing mouth translate his stiff, uncomfortable features into an unexpectedly harrowing and emotional expression of discomfort.

The latter shows the couple on a walk with their pet: a potato on a chain over the bear’s paw; A blue and white striped tablecloth provides a path and the bamboo plant becomes the foliage around it. With regard to the depressing embrace of the unhappy bear by the wildly grinning monkey, the “pet” potato also serves as a partner’s gloomy comic send-up as a “ball and chain”.

It is this disturbing dynamic that gives Imai’s whimsical creatures gravity. What makes them relatable is that the drama and the emotional intensity of their staged scenarios are full of symbols of everyday life, as in “Distance” (2020), a family portrait of a bear in a bathrobe and his “children” (the ubiquitous yellow) bear and an ET doll in a red hoodie) or in the many small paintings of food.

Installation view by Ulala Imai: Amazing at Nonaka-Hill, Los Angeles

Fruits arranged in a bowl or on a countertop evoke the history of European still life painting, and Imai’s soft, broad brushstrokes and vivid colors are reminiscent of Cézanne’s bright apples. However, her preferences also include toast or ham and eggs, while two paintings of halved pineapples with faces made from grapes (“Madame Pineapple”, “Mr. Pineapple”, both 2021) clearly reflect the daily work of feeding young children.

“Avocado Rock” (2020) embodies the family’s sometimes suffocating security: household items like a banana, a bottle of Grand Marnier, a honey bear, and hand sanitizer (one of the show’s only direct allusions to the pandemic) are loosely arranged on a reflective worktop a Chewbacca mask. The mask recreates the still life as a narrative painting, with Chewbacca as the tired family man, whose intergalactic adventures, like those of Darth Vader, are clouded by exhaustion and responsibility.

The arrangement of the objects, all contained in the picture plane but not close enough to indicate intimacy, underscores the sense of ambivalence towards family that Chewbacca seems to express. (In contrast, the overabundance of toys in the jam-packed “Gathering” 2020 conveys a suffocating intimacy.)

Installation view by Ulala Imai: Amazing in Nonaka-Hill, Los Angeles

Nearby, three large paintings revolving around Charlie Brown and Lucy van Pelt occupied the Peanuts characters as friends and lovers. The peanuts images activate the emotional tension that permeates the show. You could depict a fantasy of reconciliation between the two, whose relationship in the comic book is usually controversial. Still, it is almost impossible for anyone who knows the cartoons to miss their story of antagonism and fear.

While it is reasonable to project human emotions and family dynamics onto toys, they are not simply symbols or avatars of real people. Imai creates more ambiguity and suggests that they represent us and that we share some of their qualities.

Their stiffness, their mask-like looks (some are literally masks) and the “togetherness” imposed on them by Imai’s arrangements and imposed narratives are paramount to how our lives are shaped by situations and others. The toys reflect the handicap of personal freedom of choice and must wear masks in society. Family, Imai suggests, offers a warm respite, but it is shaped by the fear of needing each other for better or for worse.

Installation view by Ulala Imai: Amazing in Nonaka-Hill, Los Angeles

Ulala Imai: Amazingly, it continues on Nonaka Hill (720 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, California) until April 3rd.

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