Super Awesome: Giant Robot's Cultural Evolution

May 7, 2014

It used to be that the terms “nerdy” and “cool” were at opposite ends of a spectrum. Collecting comics was for losers, listening to punk rock was for cool kids. But these days, there’s a kind of intersection of hipness and geekiness-- from the high-tech devices in our pockets to the sci-fi and comic-inspired entertainment we consume, “cool nerd” culture is really having its day. But back in the mid-90s, there was a magazine that was already bridging that gap: Giant Robot, which brought together video games, collecting, music, and art with a uniquely Asian American perspective.

A new show at the Oakland Museum of California showcases art from Giant Robot’s 20-year history, with pieces including a giant graffiti-style mural, a glass case full of hand-painted robot figurines, and paintings of cute animals with expressive faces. The exhibit is co-curated by Carin Adams, the museum’s associate curator for art and material culture, and Giant Robot owner Eric Nakamura.

Nakamura started Giant Robot as a zine, stapled together in his Los Angeles bedroom in 1994. He was a college student into punk music, drawing, and pan-Asian culture-- but he says he felt like he didn’t really fit in anywhere.

“I was definitely an Asian American who was left out of a lot of Asian American cliques, groups, school clubs and organizations,” Nakamura says.

He says he couldn’t really find media that felt like it represented him.

“I know there were other magazines that would say something like: ‘the magazine for Asian Americans’ ... and I would say wow, how dare they say that they’re representing me? I’m part of Asian America,” he says.  

So he started a magazine as a platform for all of his varied interests: music, anime, skateboarding, food, history. Anything could be included.

Nakamura says the idea was not to exclude anyone, whether by age, ethnicity, or anything else. “We were very excited that anyone would want to read it, and we wrote for anyone,” he says.

Soon the magazine gained pages, and got glossy. Co-editor Martin Wong and numerous contributors from indie and Asian American communities came on board. They started carrying ads, and sold in record stores and other alternative spots. Nakamura says that the audience for Giant Robot surprised him.

“I was like whoa, our audience isn’t who I thought our audience would be,” he says. “It’s not the cool kids, it’s the others. We were the others.”

Over the years, the magazine grew in popularity, spawning several retail stores and art galleries, even a restaurant. Yet it maintained its scruffy, independent vibe. And now it has landed someplace Nakamura couldn't have pictured when he was younger: the Oakland Museum of California.

The exhibit features 15 artists from various points in Giant Robot’s evolution. There are works inspired by comic books, realistic oil paintings, and ceramic sculptures.

A 17-foot-high mural by husband-and-wife artistic duo kozyndan (Kozy and Dan Kitchens) wraps around one corner of the gallery, even covering part of the floor. The brightly-colored piece features giant animals co-existing with small, naked humans in various California landscapes. Today kozyndan make big works and are shown internationally, but they started small: selling inexpensive posters and prints at the Giant Robot store. Dan Kitchens say meeting Eric Nakamura in 2001 launched their career.

“He asked us to do illustrations for the magazine and gave us an art show,” Kitchens says. “It was the first art show that was ever at Giant Robot. And it was two weeks after we graduated from college. And we literally have just been working artists ever since then.”

Exhibit co-curator Carin Adams says kozyndan are typical of a lot of the artists associated with Giant Robot, in that they are able to translate their artistic voice across different platforms. They move easily from museum to gallery to retail.

“The kind of hybrid cultural take that Giant Robot was experimenting with in the beginning is something that we take more for granted now. A kind of fluid back and forth between identity and culture-- music, to food, to gaming, to contemporary art, and all the spaces in between,” says Adams.

Luke Chueh is another artist in the show whose work embodies that fluidity. Chueh’s piece, called “Possessed”, is a human-size sculpture of a cute white bear with blood on its paws. The bear is looking down at his paws with a forlorn expression, while a little devil holds an Atari 26 controller plugged into the back of the bear’s head.

“Possessed” started its life as a painting, then became a toy sold at Giant Robot before landing here as a large sculpture in the museum. Chueh says this kind of boundary-crossing reflects the sensibilities of his generation of artists.

“We grew up watching cartoons, playing with toys, grew up in a very consumer-oriented society,” says Chueh. “So we take what we grew up with, take the things that we loved, and we re-insert it into this package that is known as ‘art’.”

Giant Robot, the actual paper magazine, put out its last issue--with a Luke Chueh piece on the cover-- in 2011. Since then, Eric Nakamura has continued to present and curate, sell art and products in his store and gallery, and produce events. Nakamura doesn’t have concrete plans for the future, but says he’s content to just see where his interests take him.

“It’s like life’s Lego,” he says. “I’m just building stuff, and whatever I like I’ll stop at for a while, and then move on.  And, it’s all good. In the end, it’s fairly temporary. But it makes me happy.”

Judging from the continuing popularity of Giant Robot, it makes a lot of other people happy, too.