Jimmy Mirikitani’s Nine Lives, at Eight Modern

Jimmy Mirikitani could probably teach a workshop on the intricacies of crayon-color mixing and its affinity with Bic pen marks.   Really—his crayon-color mixing is incredible boasting layers upon layer of pigment that transform into coral or fish scales.  His show of work on view at Eight Modern, 231 Delgado Street, through August 15th, follows on a documentary movie made about his life, The Cats of Mirikitani. It’s a subtle film about his life and the complexities of being a Japanese-American of 91 who experienced internment in the U.S. during World War II, and as a homeless New Yorker, witnessed the horrors of 9/11 from his home in Washington Square Park.

Equipped with his trusty box of  good old-fashioned Crayolas, a black ballpoint pen and what looks like newsprint, Mirikitani’s materials may appear a  bit regressed  – but his drawings are anything but.  They consist mostly of pictures of cats, aquatic creatures and vegetables. If you are unfamiliar with his drawings, the images of 9/11 and Hiroshima may feel a little disjunct – but they are really central to the story.

Mirikitani is a Japanese-American born in Sacramento, CA.  He was placed in an internment camp because of his Japanese lineage during World War II.  Bereft of all relatives, a survivor in the twilight of two of history’s most horrific events (9/11 and Hiroshima), Mirikitani could even be considered an activist, drawing for peace — with Make Crayons, Not Bombs as a message.

It’s his fresh perspective that endears, even when the image-making derives of trauma.  New York shows the twin towers burning.  The buildings themselves are basic, mostly scribbled ink lines in vertical clusters that distinguish story-after-story of windows.  The emphasis is on fire—red circles completely solid with orange and yellow encircling the circumference. Gray smoke wafts and rises as civilians lie writhing on the ground.  They are sketched as glorified stick figures each maybe a third the size of a fingernail.  Their arms wave and flail in distress, they fall upside down and every which way, all in simple strokes of Mirikitani’s Bic ballpoint pen.  Compared to the tiny civilians, the buildings are huge, (as the World Trade Center towers were), but this perspective also reminds us that Mirikitani was homeless on 9/11/2001, and witnessed the events from an inescapable home on the streets.

Cats,then, as languid homebodies? Note them constantly peeking out from behind waves of cloth, spying on fish or their canine nemesis. Tigers stare predatorily out. The cats loll. In Cat with Blue Fish, hundreds of straight pen lines pile next to each other and layer up to curve around the arc of the cat’s spine, continuing to denote the coiled tail.  The cat gazing at its caught feast that’s almost its equal in size—obviously not a problem.  Another cat, in the background, is eyeing the scene.  The thick mass of pen strokes anchors the image and in spots where it is so densely layered, the paper buckles.  Sometimes it’s even crinkled but if Mirikitani painted in oils on properly prepared 80lb acid free paper (let alone canvas), his felines and friends just wouldn’t be as enticing.

Independent lonesome creatures, cats are notoriously moody.  Yet they are strong and resilient and always land on their feet. Even the domesticated versions we love to tease are reminiscent of their wild ancestors who are canny predators of the animal world.  Plus, cats have nine lives.  For Jimmy Mirikitani it all kind of makes sense.