A monthly glimpse at the works in the current exhibition Gilded: Contemporary Artists Explore Value and Worth. On view at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at UNCG through April 8, 2023.

Gajin Fujita, ‘Invincible Kings of This Mad Mad World,’ 2017. Courtesy of the artist and LA Louver, Venice, Calif. © Gajin Fujita, photo courtesy of the artist and LA Louver, Venice, Calif.

So-called high and low art deliberately collide in the work of Gajin Fujita. As the child of a Japanese father who was an abstract landscape painter and a Japanese mother who worked as a conservator, Fujita frequently turns to iconic Japanese artworks as one source of imagery. However, as a native of Los Angeles and a former graffiti artist, he is also just as likely to lift images from American street culture, and regularly incorporates the signature tags of other such artists along with layers of popular commercial symbols.

Here, he invited eleven friends to add their tags across a four-paneled painting so large that it feels like the side of a building. The beginning of its title, “Invincible Kings,” is a nod to Fujita’s early days of art-making with those friends, who called themselves the KGB, Kings of Graffiti Bombing. Often, he recalls, they would refer to themselves with words such as invincible in order to “sound bigger” than other crews. One night, they even painted the word on a wall near a local farmer’s market, though it proved all too mortal when whitewashed by authorities within a day. Recalling those youthful claims to might and grandeur, in this painting from 2017, Fujita includes the image of a lion — king of the jungle — plus two ornate crowns and the word KINGS lifted from the logo of the city’s professional hockey team.

The painting’s opulent gold-leafed surface underscores these notions of personal grandeur. Fujita has shared that he was thinking about the gilded walls of a receiving room at Nijo Castle in Kyoto, the 17th Century home of the Japanese emperor’s military leader, and a space designed to demonstrate power. Fujita has re-created Fujin, the revered god of wind, with his vibrantly hued skin, wild hair, and billowing sash, but instead of depicting him in the sky, he has brought him to earth and surrounded him with oversized peonies and a lion on a chain. This abundance of natural elements — wind, flora, and fauna — speaks to the artist’s concern for the environment, and his frustration with the human hubris that disregards it: “I painted this work in hopes that it would send a clear message that nature rules over all of us on this planet.” That we so often fail to honor it makes our current culture, as the artist notes in the second half of his title, a “mad, mad world.”

Gilded is on display now at Weatherspoon Art Museum through April 8, free and open to the public.

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