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New Times / Art

The following article was posted on February 19th, 2014, in the New Times - Volume 28, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [] - Volume 28, Issue 30

Famed illustrator and fine artist Dennis Mukai has an '80s retrospective at Just Looking Gallery


Meet Dennis Mukai on Feb. 22 at the Just Looking Gallery when a retrospective of his work opens.

Bright colors, big hair, and sexy women. That’s the ’80s, right? Ronald Reagan became president. He and Nancy started the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. People snorted coke up their noses like there was no tomorrow. AIDS ruined unprotected casual sex. Apple released the Macintosh 128K. VHS tapes beat Betamax once and for all. Madonna and Michael Jackson dominated the airwaves. Miami Vice. Neon. Sigh.

In some ways, the era that marked the “Me Generation” seemed like a cultural wasteland—shallow, corrupt, and sleazy. The most popular artist was Patrick Nagel, whose slick, sultry, and highly stylized illustrations of women seemed to hang in every fern-festooned and mirror-and black-accented bachelor pad. Just behind Nagel’s dominance was another artist, Dennis Mukai (a one-time Nagel student), whose own work chronicles the glamour and glitz of this glamorous and glitzy decade.

Dozens of unseen Dennis Makai gesture drawings will be on display.

Mukai’s ’80s work appears in a retrospective this Saturday, Feb. 22, at SLO’s Just Looking Gallery from 6 to 9 p.m. New Times spoke to Mukai via phone.

“There’re mainly two versions of work I’m showing: gestural drawings I did as precursors to more finished prints, and the stuff I did for Playboy that does feel like Nagel’s work. I don’t like to reference him—he was my teacher for one semester, but I didn’t learn anything from him. I liked what he was doing, shooting models and creating glamorous images. I was attracted to his lifestyle, which had a real mystique to it.”

While similarities between Nagel and Mukai are readily apparent, Mukai took great strides in differentiating his style from Nagel’s, and his current work is light years from the sort of work he did in the ’80s (see more at In fact, Mukai and Nagel were close friends and shared the same publisher.

Illustrations Dennis Mukai provided Playboy magazine for its “Playboy Forum” will also be on hand.

“I basically went to him for advice about work,” added Mukai, who started publishing in Playboy in the early ’80s. “My original style was in conflict with Nagel’s so he asked me to develop something very different, so I worked very hard to come up with something very unique.”

A lot of the work that will be on display this Saturday was never meant to be seen publicly.

“I would do marker drawings as studies for final canvases, and I turned some into limited-edition prints. These are about 70 drawings in my archives that were just in my drawers. I have hundreds of drawings left over, over the years. Originally, I didn’t want to sell the drawings though my publishers thought I could get good money, but I didn’t think they were final art, so when [Just Looking Gallery owner] Ralph [Gorton] came to me and said, ‘There’s a resurgent interest in your work,’ I said this work is from my past and I’m not interested in resurrecting it, but I decided I would show it as a retrospective. I didn’t really want to bring this back, but I pulled from my drawings, found about 30 Playboy illustrations and 70 studies, 95 percent of which have never been seen by anybody. I thought this would be a unique kind of a show. Ralph’s point was that there was a whole new generation of people to rediscover the work, and some of the people interested in the work in the ’80s didn’t have the money then to buy the work and are jumping at the opportunity to buy it now.”

Dennis Mukai collaborated with photographer George Barris, using images from Marilyn Monroe’s last photo shoot before she died.

Mukai will also show cover illustrations he did for the duPont Registry as well as a series he did in collaboration with photographer George Barris, using shots Barris took during Marilyn Monroe’s final photo session before her death.

Meet the artist; see the work
Dennis Mukai will display work he made in the 1980s as part of “Mukai Retrospective” at the Just Looking Gallery (746 Higuera St., SLO; 541-6663) on Saturday, Feb. 22 from 6 to 9 p.m.

Don’t miss your chance to see a living legend and to relive the wild and wacky ’80s through the art of Dennis Mukai!


Glen Starkey takes a beating and keeps on bleating. Keep up with him via twitter at, friend him at or, or contact him at