Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking alternative art and culture magazine Giant Robot, SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot group exhibition now on view at Oakland Museum of California includes artwork by 15 national and international artists who have been an integral part of the magazine’s social and cultural mission. Begun in 1994 as a handmade ‘zine with a distribution fewer than 250 copies, Giant Robot quickly evolved into a widely-distributed glossy magazine, and then to a brick and mortar shop selling imported art goods and exhibiting local artists, first in San Francisco until 2011 and now located in Los Angeles and online. Co-curated by Giant Robot co-founder Eric Nakamura and Oakland Museum’s Associate Curator of Art & Material Culture Carin Adams, SuperAwesome explores how these artists, their artwork, and the magazine’s community exposed wider audiences to the diversity and complexity of Asian, trans-Pacific cultures and identity, and helped to bring it into mainstream popular culture. “Woven throughout the exhibition is a sense of how Giant Robot celebrates Asian and Asian American cultural identity with playful irreverence,” says Adams in her curatorial statement. “The voices of the artists highlighted in the show add their own perspective, further complicating the story and enriching the experience.”
In the early 90s Giant Robot began as a small ‘zine featuring Asian pop culture and Asian American alternative culture that included history and contemporary art, music, film, books, toys, food, and popular pastimes. While viewing material culture and historical pieces on display which either directly or indirectly laid the foundation of the formation of Giant Robot, it was important to be reminded of the medium’s importance because, in contrast to the Internet that now connects people across the globe through social media and apps, it was only through this and few other forms of communication audiences could be exposed to alternative culture, and connect with other people who shared similar interests and ideas. “When I flip through the earliest issues, I could see the energy that went into each word. With co-editor and long time collaborator Martin Wong, each page was an adventure to ideas and worlds unexplored,” says co-curator Eric Nakamura. “It was travel, food, film, toys, and more but from a filter of an unabashed fan. The enthusiasm within the pages grew an audience who also consumed other ‘zines and indie comics. It also grew my interest in art.” Giant Robot was one of the earliest publications in the United States to include information about Asian filmstars such as Chow Yun-fat and Jet Li, and Asian indie and punk rock bands and musicians. Later, the coverage expanded to Asian and Asian American art, design, and current issues affecting Asian American communities.
The inclusion of artists from many backgrounds and disparate experiences reveal how Giant Robot played a significant role in both local, and the greater California contemporary arts. Seen in the exhibition and through its chosen artists, Giant Robot does not bisect North and South of the state or indeed of the United States as many movements and genres might do. Affiliated artists sustain a cooperative exchange of ideas based upon common experiences, ideals, and aesthetics that reach beyond physical borders. “By covering Asian American culture from an underground perspective, it connected the dots between different scenes and laid a common ground—with music, art, food, and film all under the same covers,” writes Aaron Cometbus, Editor and Publisher of the Cometbus ‘zine. Just a few examples reveal this breadth of backgrounds and approaches, yet the pervading common interests and ideas. Ako Castuera, who attended California College of the Arts and currently resides in Los Angeles, makes ceramic sculpture and mixed-media installations including objects and designs inspired by indigenous civilizations of the Americas in a modernist style. Los Angeles-based artist and California College of the Arts alum Rob Sato fashions richly detailed, open-narrative watercolor dreamscapes. Originally from San Diego and now living in Berkeley, Deth P. Sun’s well-known depictions of an unnamed cat character range in situations from fantastic to the routine. A Los Angeles-based artist who was born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission district, Shizu Saldamando’s portraits explore social constructs and subcultures using an assortment of mediums: from oil and gold leaf on wood panel to ball point pens on bed sheets. Founded in San Diego over 10 years ago, San Francisco-based Hamburger Eyes photo collective creates a pictorial album of everyday life, particularly its fleeting moments.
Diverging from typical retrospectives, SuperAwesome Art and Giant Robot exhibits ephemeral material culture from the magazine’s history including Moleskine sketchbooks, decorated baseballs, watercolor palettes, and drawing pencils shaved down to the ferrule as it concurrently presents new or recently created art by the participating artists. The Oakland Museum of California also commissioned artists to create artworks and large murals for the exhibition. Some highlights of these commissions and new works include large-scale mural by David Choe, and the debut of artist team kozyndan’s 17 feet tall, 36 feet wide mural installation, Ode to California visitors are encouraged to enter and immerse themselves into an artistic California experience. Artist Sean Chao’s Monkey Business Robot Monkey and correlating mural were also created specifically for the exhibition. Giant Robot Scion XB art car, commissioned by Toyota Motor Corporation’s Scion, installed in the gallery space includes the independent video game, The Pack, which was commissioned for the exhibition features artwork by Rob Sato.
SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot will be at Oakland Museum of California through July 27, 2014.