Giant Robot magazine feted in new Oakland exhibiT
LOU FANCHER Mercury News
Giant Robot began as a one-man publication run by Eric Nakamura out of his parents’ Southern California home. Beginning in 1994, he began assembling, photocopying and stapling the alternative zine that dealt with Asian pop culture, not knowing that it would eventually catch a trans-Pacific wave and become a groundbreaking tsunami of artistic and societal expression.
Twenty years later, the art and impact of Nakamura’s labor of love is being examined in a new exhibit, “SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot,” opening Saturday at the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibit, co-curated by Nakamura and Carin Adams, OMCA’s associate curator of art and material culture, features a wide-ranging collection of art, literature and artifacts reflecting Giant Robot’s influential role as a conduit of Asian popular culture.
Giant Robot ballooned from a precocious publication into a brand that included retail stores, galleries and restaurants in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and a still-hot website. Along the way, emerging artists moved from the magazine’s covers to the American mainstream. They include Adrian Tomine, whose work has appeared on New Yorker covers, and James Jean, whose artwork has been used by Prada, ESPN and Atlantic Records.
By touching on skateboarders and sketchers, video gamers and visual artists, Giant Robot became a trend-setting cultural animal that helped establish Asian pop culture as its own genre. And Nakamura still finds it all surprising.
“I was an infant, publishing a magazine without spending any money,” he says. “I just went with what I liked.”
And what he liked was not the disposable photos of movie stars that graced most pop culture magazines. Nakamura aimed for stories and art that blended Asian art and history with late-20th-century American pop culture attitudes. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, his interests meshed with a multiracial generation of young people hungry for cultural connections and possessing money to burn.
Five years later, Nakamura’s publishing center — still at his parents’ house at the time — was crammed with interns and items (T-shirts, designer dolls, stationery) that were for sale on the publication’s online store. The website took off, so Nakamura opened a brick-and-mortar store in 2001, and that took off, too.
“The rent was paid in just a few days,” he recalls.
With its combination of product-blending and Nakamura’s curatorial, laserlike focus on spotlighting artists, Giant Robot’s appeal resonated with OMCA’s Adams, growing up in the Bay Area.
“The work inspired because it was community-building for people who wanted to build their own tribe,” she says.
Nakamura says the Giant Robot cultural phenomenon has been studied by academics, but the OMCA exhibit is simply meant to be “pure fun.” Meanwhile, his job as Giant Robot publisher remains the same: “Find new artists, then push them to the edge.”
Both Adams and Nakamura said it was vital that the exhibit be interactive and geared to giving visitors a personal look at the world of Giant Robot.
Visitors can make their own zines, buttons and other items and “view my stuff and learn the story of a kid in California, growing up at a certain time in history,” Nakamura says.
Oozing enthusiasm from every automated nook and cultural cranny, the exhibit fills a 7,500-square-foot gallery with iconic representations and recent works by 15 artists affiliated with the magazine. There are sculptures, paintings, large-scale installations, magazines, vinyl toys, skateboards and vending machines, including a bright, wall-to-wall installation by husband-and-wife illustrators Dan and Kozue Kitchens (collectively known as kozyndan) and a large-scale outdoor mural by Andrew Hem.
Then there’s Nakamura’s famed Giant Robot Scion xB, which is outfitted with a Nintendo game console and projectors, in which you can play “Super Mario Bros.,” “Mega Man” or “Return of the Quack.”
The museum has also scheduled family flip book workshops, SuperAwesome Salons featuring zine history and conversations about anime and manga during the course of the exhibit, which runs through July 27.
An entire room devoted to Giant Robot ephemera — or “things pulled out of my parents’ house,” Nakamura says — announces that Giant Robot was created not only by a man ahead of his time (he was a 20-something living with his parents before it became fashionable), but by an artist who found himself in tune with society’s perpetual pivot.