Keller Easterling

"Some of the most disquieting drawings are at once teen-aged and middle-aged, juvenile and institutional, or adorable and menacing. In her book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Sianne Ngai’s exploration of ‘cute’ visits this strange conflation of meanings in two Japanese words that are pronounced almost the same kawaii (cute) and kowai (scary or creepy). Fluffy mixes with muscular, toy with weapon, goofy with heavy metal, Excalibur with Hello Kitty. Pirate skulls and shiny metal bots meet diminutive human and non-human figures. They seem to derive from some generic formula that teenagers teach each other when they doodle in a notebook. It is not the cartoon they would draw themselves, but one that adheres to a repeatable template and looks strangely like the ‘professional’ work of a hack cartoonist who has tricks for drawing stock eyes, noses and big open-mouthed grins – giant dentures with the glinting starburst that can anthropomorphise anything. And they stand ready to release either another rancid threat or another cheerful information-for-dumbies message.

The background music downshifts into a mash-up of epic, electronic sediment and the high-pitched, push-button melody fragments of computer games. Look up towards the oriole windows in the painting through which gods, princely merchants and political leaders usually ascend to heaven. Now they are a strange wormhole in history that collapses fictions of the modern and progressive with new episodes of savagery. Rising through to the clouds are global-scale diasporas of crusaders and Mongolian warriors travelling with packs of salesmen, security specialists and belligerent teenagers rendered as squat cartoon figures – girls with big breasts and baby-faces and boys with huge eyes and feet, wearing bell bottoms and ISIS t-shirts. Equipped with twenty-first-century telecommunications, the teenagers can now summon other teenagers from anywhere in the world to annihilate each other in a desert – young men as eager as management consultants to conform or join the gang, and young women made to feel unloved. And the circular ISIS logo, with its gratuitous metallic shine and airbrushed gradients looks like any logo, badge or seal of approval from any popular corporation or NGO. All float upwards with eagles, alligators, sharks, leprechauns, squirrels and other mascots of motivation, violence and puppy-love."