Creature feature

Bay Area Now: Misako Inaoka mashes together animal-vegetable-machine hybrids
Pink Flower Head

Nature — in its many contrived or bizarrely hybridized forms — has ways of rearing its at-times-grotesque, at-times-seductive heads in Misako Inaoka's work. Are her cunning mutants little monsters — be they chirping mechanical birds with propeller beaks or flowery pincushion pates, or donkeys or cattle mermaid-merged with John Deere tractor parts? Miniature extras from a lost installment of Ultraman? The petit-four-size stuff of surrealist nightmares? Or bio freaks in search of a new species to call their own?

It's easy to get carried away by the puckish black humor of these critter creations or simply their kawaii — or cute — qualities, before sinking deeper into Inaoka's query into the nature of authenticity vs. artifice, an idea that also crops up in her mossy or AstroTurfed environments, one of which will receive prominent placement in the glass-enclosed hall facing Mission Street during "Bay Area Now 5." "I'm interested in the way we mimic nature to create an urban landscape. When we can't have access to real nature, we have AstroTurf. Or these birds that people purchase for amusement or as a pet," says the deeply tanned, elfin 31-year-old in the sweltering Dogpatch studio she shares with about six other artists. "Even I forget when I go to the park. I think, 'Oh, this looks beautiful and smells great and looks green.' But it's all manicured."

If, in less than four decades, humans are expected to vault beyond pacemakers and merge with machines and some form of artificial intelligence, thereby erasing distinctions between organic, animate beings and inorganic, inanimate objects, as scientists like synth inventor Ray Kurzweil have theorized, then Inaoka's small sculptures — created by chopping apart dollar- and toy-store creatures and reconfiguring them with resin, toy parts, and flower-store detritus — resemble harbingers of the new hybrids we all might be rushing toward in the quest to adapt to a rapidly shifting environment. "This is my fantasy — what if they can change quickly and if they could adapt easily," says Inaoka, as she shows me another piece she created specifically for "BAN 5" (she also has work in Stephen Wirtz Gallery's "Summer '08" group show, through Aug. 23): white birch branches scattered with silver-coated bird-mods sporting jet wings, machine parts, and, in one case, a walker.

The Kyoto, Japan, native received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from Mills College, where, on that beauteous, highly controlled campus, she first began to experiment with making moss-clad environments. Since then her work has received its share of stereotypical responses: comparisons to Zen gardens, ikebana, or bonsai. But Inaoka prefers to find inspiration in common, everyday objects she might find in her Mission District habitat: a tree-shaped cell phone antenna or the little flowers that push through the cracks of the sidewalk. "I try not to think too much," says Inaoka of her process. "I just make and make like I was five years old again. Then the thinking process or research follows. 'Why did I make this shape? Why did this come up?' When I have too many concepts, it just kind of kills the energy."

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