DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The giant robot has returned to Downtown for a third time. 

There’s nothing to be scared about. It’s not the tagline for a sci-fi flick or a mechanical convention in South Park.

Instead, it’s the third installment in a suddenly traditional exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. Giant Robot Biennale 3 runs through Jan. 20, 2013.

The exhibit is a partnership between JANM and Eric Nakamura, who runs the Asian culture magazine Giant Robot. It continues the museum’s mission to expand beyond the core Asian American audience with a mix of paintings, sculptures, ink drawings and customized toys. It even contains a maze.

So far, an eclectic crowd is showing up.

“The great thing about GiantRobot is that it has been able to expand past the Asian American market, and I think anyone who is interested in pop culture and pop art is interested in this show,” said Koji Sakai, the museum’s manager of programs.

The exhibit features more than 160 pieces from eight artists all with ties to GiantRobot. There is an additional collection within the show called Project Remix. It includes vinyl toy figures customized by more than 80 artists from seven countries. 

While the exhibit means a more diverse audience for JANM, Nakamura said one of the personal benefits is the opportunity to promote new art and artists. 

Since the magazine no longer publishes in print, many new artists now start with small displays at the Giant Robot gallery on the Westside. Some of them then move on to the bigger venue in Downtown Los Angeles.

“In between these big shows I get to see and meet new artists and try them out in a smaller space,” Nakamura said. “Those that do well I can put in a larger space thanks to the opportunity afforded by the museum.” 

Triple Threat

The first Giant Robot Biennale took place in 2007 and was a celebration of the first 50 issues of the magazine that began publishing in 1994. It marked the first installment in JANM’s Salon Pop series, which was developed to attract a broader and younger audience while highlighting the creations of Japanese and Japanese-American artists whose work is influencing American culture. 

The second show took place two years later. It celebrated the artists associated with the magazine and included well-known figures such as fine art and graffiti artist David Choe.

GiantRobot ceased a print version in 2011. Still, the online effort continues, and so does the relationship with JANM. The current show features three artists who participated in the previous exhibit, as well as a group of up-and-comers.

“They’re all artists that I know or I’ve worked with, and they’re all kind of cut from a similar mold,” Nakamura said. “It’s the kids that grew up with sketchbooks, the kids that would draw on their notebooks and were maybe a little less boisterous.”

The exhibit begins on the ground floor of the museum with a maze created by Albert Reyes. It was modeled after the ones he builds in his backyard every year for Halloween. 

Made from wood, cardboard and old doors, the maze is covered with pen drawings including Day of the Dead skulls, random images of men and women and even self-portraits of Reyes holding a knife. Inside is a sort of macabre diorama.

“He shows in a lot of ways the growth of GiantRobot,” Sakai said. “It encompasses more than just Asian Americans, but all people from all over the place and specifically Los Angeles.”

Past the maze and inside the gallery space are the customized Uglydolls, a line of plush dolls that resemble cartoon monsters. They are displayed inside glass cases. Sakai noted that the artists were allowed to do whatever they wanted with the blank dolls.

The result is a collection of colorful characters that fall somewhere between sculpture, three-dimensional comic book figures and toys. 

One looks like a multicolored popsicle, and inside is a small robot. Another resembles Godzilla and a third is a Voltron-like robot. It is fighting another Uglydoll, whose head is detached. To make things worse, its internal organs are flying out of its body.

Sean Chao has numerous pieces in Giant Robot Biennale 3. His works include dioramas and several paintings of cats engaged in various activities. Some felines build machines, while others take a break around a box of donuts. One even gets a massage. 

One of Chao’s standouts is the Giant Cat Robot, made from clay, basswood and acrylic paint. The cat robot has little cat creatures inside its head that control the machine.

The exhibit, and some of the cat art, continues on the second floor of the museum, where two walls are covered with more than 200 small paintings of cats hanging out in an alternative world. In the piece by artist Deth P. Sun, the cat characters shoot arrows, hunt alligators, walk over mountains and even ride turtles. 

In a third gallery are watercolors and oil paintings by Rob Sato. Most of his work focuses on history and linking the past, present and future all at once. 

One of the highlight pieces is a painting of what appears to be a VW bus. It is being pulled from the rear by a man on horseback as he rides alongside other horsemen. 

“With that piece I was thinking about immigration, crossing borders and manifest destiny and the nature of travel and human migration,” Sato said. 

Nakamura said there are no current plans for a fourth Biennale. However, he said he is up for extending the series and continuing to do his part to attract a younger and more diverse audience to JANM. 

Giant Robot Biennale 3runs through Jan. 20, 2013, at JANM, 100 N. Central Ave., (213) 625-0414 or

Contact Richard Guzmán at

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012

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