Kelly Inouye’s Giant Watercolors Recall the Power of ’80s MTV

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Woman with long brown hair sits on stool in front of large watercolors
Kelly Inouye with two of her new paintings: Michael Jackson in the video for 'Thriller' and Madonna in her 'Lucky Star' clip. (Courtesy of the artist)

The first time I stood in a room with the outsized icons of Kelly Inouye’s MTV Generation, a show of large-scale watercolor paintings, I was immediately transported back to my childhood. Back to 1983 and my cousin’s living room floor for the premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. To my family couch the first time we all witnessed Boy George finger-snapping his way through “Karma Chameleon.” (“Is that a man or a woman?” my dad asked no one in particular.) To the countless Saturday mornings when I’d wake up early to catch a glimpse of Public Enemy on Yo! MTV Raps.

For people like me who grew up in the ’80s, awed and impressed by the pop idols of the period, gazing upon Inouye’s latest work is a visceral experience. Here, the haze that watercolors naturally yield evoke an intense nostalgia. The portraits become a DeLorean back to a time when music was curated by—and filtered through—an all-powerful marketing machine that decided who was cool and what records Americans bought. They’re also a reminder of the excitement of catching your favorite music videos in the years when watching anything on demand was impossible.

“It felt transgressive to watch MTV when it first came out because it was so scandalous,” Inouye says during a studio visit with KQED Arts as she was finishing the work for a solo show at San Francisco’s Marrow Gallery. “There is a different cultural zeitgeist today. It’s not a collective culture anymore. I thought about making smaller paintings and more [of them], but I didn’t feel like that would convey the power and the strength that was wielded by MTV."

Vertical painting on paper made with black watercolor
A watercolor rendition of Janet Jackson in her 'Rhythm Nation 1814' days. (Courtesy of the artist)

Generation MTV features imposing renditions of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Boy George, Prince and the Revolution, Twisted Sister, Janet Jackson and Public Enemy. The paintings—supported by a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission—are presented in the chronological order (1981–1989) of the moments and videos Inouye based them on. And while most of her subjects were the biggest stars of the decade, that’s not the only reason Inouye selected them.

“If you think about all of these artists,” she explains, “they were not people who were elevated in society. I wanted to include the Revolution with Prince because they were such a diverse, interesting, alternative group of people. Wendy and Lisa were gay and together on screen—that never happened before. Culture Club had a multi-ethnicity that reflected the ‘United Colors of Benetton’ tone of the time. That’s what I felt like the future would be like, but it’s not,” Inouye continues. “That was part of the inclination for me to do this—the world now feels different to the one I was promised when I was a kid.”

Watercolor painting of singer in hat
Kelly Inouye’s watercolor painting of Boy George. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Inouye has spent much of the last 20 years examining and exploring pop culture from a personal perspective. Her last show before the pandemic focused on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Prior to that, she focused her energy on painting memorable moments from popular TV shows of the 1970s and ’80s. In 2015, she painted stills from San Francisco movies including Dirty Harry, Milk and Invasion of the Body Snatchers for display in bus shelters along Market Street.

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Still, Inouye refers to MTV Generation as “by far the most influential set of images from my lifetime.” To do them justice during the creative process, the artist immersed herself in a soundtrack of music from—and podcasts about—the ’80s. She also devoured books that analyzed the era, including Outlaw Culture by bell hooks and Questlove’s Music is History.

“I was trying to feed my brain with stuff that communicated the feeling that I wanted to paint,” Inouye says. “With watercolor, it’s fleeting, right? If you don’t touch it at the right time, it doesn’t have the same feeling.”

MTV Generation is likely not the end of Inouye’s examination of the channel’s influence on pop culture (then and now). “I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface,” she says. “There’s really a lot to do here. A lot of directions to take it. And I mean, that’s a good feeling. Being finished with paintings for a show, and I’m still excited.”

‘MTV Generation’ is on view May 4—June 4 at Marrow Gallery (548 Irving Street, San Francisco), with an opening reception at 5pm on May 7. Visitors are invited to record their own MTV memories for a future book. Details here.