Japanese artist Shinji Murakami speaks emoji—his painted wooden sculptures are bright, glimmering, oversized pictograms. In the cozy space of the Catinca Tabacaru Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, puppies, flowers, a heart, a rainbow and a galloping horse fill the room alongside three paintings and an LED drawing.
After a few moments processing the cuteness overload packed inside the gallery, what is immediately striking is Murakami’s masterful hand: Each sculpture is crafted from meticulously stacked, hand-cut wooden blocks that resemble giant pixels. Once bound together, the structures are painted in acrylic and enamel in a restricted palette of vivid hues.
Murakami, who is based in New York, started his career in the street over 15 years ago, tagging minimalist graphic representations of bunnies, hearts and flowers on Tokyo’s urban canvas. Back then, his aim was already to engage a cross-generational, cross-cultural audience—so by the time emoji became a global language, the universally recognized hieroglyphs had natural appeal for the artist.
For this latest solo exhibition, Murakami prepared all of his works digitally. Using Google SketchUp, he maps out the building blocks of each sculpture, then goes offscreen and into the woodshop. There, the wood is cut, primed and painted. The paintings are planned out in Photoshop and Illustrator, then projected onto the canvas for precision tracing and painting.
The pixelated works embrace simplicity: Murakami wants to stir up feelings of happiness and “nostalgia for 80s video games.” “Forget about the complicated rules of the contemporary art for awhile,” he writes in an email with a smiley. “I would like random passersby to enjoy them. It’s like when I was drawing cute characters on the street in Tokyo, which could be enjoyed by kids as well as their grandparents, instead of engaging with the style wars of street writers.”