Press / KCET

Brickbats and Fat Cats: the Animated Watercolors of Moira Hahn
Meher McArthur

"Japanese Accents: This series of articles showcases Southern California artists whose works integrate elements of Japanese art and design yet speak boldly about our contemporary SoCal lives. Some are Japanese-American; others have no blood connection with Japan but have discovered something Japanese that resonates with their artistic vision."

For over two decades, Moira Hahn's lavishly detailed watercolor paintings have been masterpieces of cross-cultural fantasy. Her anthropomorphized cats, tigers, monkeys, rabbits and birds, depicted as characters from 19th-century Japanese "ukiyo-e" prints and paintings, are often whimsical, evoking the lovable animated creatures of Disney, Warner Brothers or Dreamworks. But, although Hahn trained as an animator and worked in animation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most of her animal figures are a far cry from the cute, cuddly critters of children's cartoons. They inhabit a violent world, battling with each other for food or engaging in fierce inter-species skirmishes. Described recently as "Beatrix Potter, with shades of Bruegel," Hahn's vividly colored and intricately composed paintings increasingly reflect the dangers and fears of not only the animal world, but our own.

In "Maiko Rabbit" (2011), a rabbit clad in boldly contrasting layers of kimono and shaded by a striped paper umbrella, appears at first to be a sweet image of a bunny in a kimono. However, the figure is striking the seductively coy pose of a trainee courtesan, or "maiko", a popular figure in the ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") prints which portrayed the brothels, theaters and tea houses of pre-modern Japan. The rabbit's brazen stare, bare ankle and the risqu view of a fluffy white tail peeking out from below her kimono sash suggests more Playboy bunny than pet rabbit.

In "Midnight Snack" (2012), Hahn dresses two fearsome tigers in samurai armor and pits them against each other like two warriors from a "kabuki" drama, another popular theme from 19th-century Japanese prints. The tiger on the right, holding only a bamboo pole is no match for his sword-wielding adversary and appears to be submitting to the alpha male's dominance. The dark background striped with tall bamboos sets off the rich colors and intricate patterning of their armor and textiles, intensifying the drama in this violent nighttime scene.

Cats feature prominently in Hahn's work, often portrayed as menacing creatures, preying on, or actually devouring, mice and fish. In her watercolor study of a cat staring greedily into a koi pond, the ferocious feline extends her claws ready to pounce on several terrified fish, which have bravely armed themselves with lily stalks and leaves. The warm, bright colors of the image belie the grim fate of the fish.

Tables are turned on one cat in "Nightmare of the Drunken Cat" (2012) from the "Neko Koidan Series". In this comical scene, a very fat striped cat has collapsed in one corner of a Japanese-style room and watches helplessly as a team of mice overrun the house, stealing bales of rice. One group leafs through a stack of cook books looking for recipes for "luau"-style cat, while another begins cooking vegetables in a large pot. Several mice wave "sayonara" to the poor unsuspecting cat. At the far right, a parrot sings to the accompaniment of a badger strumming the three-stringed "shamisen". This humorous image of a cat's worst nightmare has precedents in traditional Japanese prints and folk painting, which pit animals against each other to satirize foolish human behavior. At least part of the image may also originate deep in Hanh's own psyche. "After I painted it, my sister reminded me that our childhood cat, Tiger, used to sit and sleep in exactly the same position!"

In fact, much of Hahn's artistic inspiration can be traced back to her childhood in South Pasadena and a suburb in Maryland. "My parents collected Japanese art," she explains, "and as a child, I was fascinated by their kimono, prints and paintings." She was also exposed to anime like "Astro Boy," and has paid homage to him and other Japanese pop figures in works such as "Godzilla vs. Atom Boy" (2002).

Hahn studied art at The Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland and then the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) in Oakland, California. In her 20s, she moved to Los Angeles to study animation at CalArts in Valencia. As she trained as an artist, her fascination with Japanese imagery grew. After working as an animator for a few years, she moved to Hawaii to study Japanese art and, for several years was an assistant to Japanese migr artist Masami Teraoka. Although Teraoka's often irreverent and darkly satirical ukiyo-e paintings helped shape Hahn's own style, her works evolved in a very different direction after she moved back to Southern California. Inspired by the birds and feral cats that fought in her back yard, she chose animals as the protagonists in her visual narratives. Each creature dramatizes a richly colored and intricately patterned world where meticulous brushwork meets unfettered imagination.

Recently, Hahn's work has been probing more deeply into fantasy to reveal some very specific and very real contemporary fears. Her new painting "Under Water World" (2012), she reveals, "is a parable about trying to stay safe during unstable times." Using her familiar ukiyo-e animal style, the work explores multiple anxieties on both shores of the Pacific: global warming, tsunamis, and the collapse of the housing market. A family of tigers is depicted in the clothing and home of a 19th-century Japanese family, surrounded by kites, a toy boat and a monopoly board game in an apparently peaceful domestic scene. However, the Japanese inscriptions in the colophons around them -- "Fear of Global Warming," "House Full of Water," and "Fear of a Second Tsunami" -- signal the natural and economic threats to this peace and stability. Symbols from both cultures reinforce the message: the American monopoly board represents corporate development and banking industry greed, while the Japanese beckoning cat, or maneki-neko, represents commercialism. The Japanese kite symbolizes fear and uncertainty but also escape and freedom. Even more than her earlier cross-cultural watercolor fantasies, this cleverly layered painting is a touching and timely reminder that we are all passengers on the same boat in this delicate and interconnected floating world.