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Kiyosumi galleries: Optimistic in Tokyo’s east

by Monty Dipietro

Painting, photography and installations from emerging and experienced artists have made for a strong start to the Kiyosumi galleries’ first spring season.

It is almost five months since four of Tokyo’s leading contemporary art galleries and four smaller ventures moved into the white warehouse on the east side of the Sumida River, and it’s already clear they are becoming more comfortable with their new spaces.

ShugoArts is the brainchild of Shugo Satani, whose father opened one of the city’s first avant-garde galleries in Ginza back in 1978. The junior Satani has come into his own as a gallerist over the years, and the current Masato Kobayashi exhibition shows confidence.

Currently, the gallery space is held, but not overpowered, by a 3-meter-wide painting plopped down in the far end of the room. It leans against the wall in a manner that reflects the subject matter — a big, bold, reclining nude, done up in rich colors, rendered almost abstract by the artist’s unfussy, hands-on-canvas application of paint. This is a study in raw form and weight, and the wrinkled canvas droops off the wooden frame to good effect.

In the ShugoArts’ back room is a selection of smallish, conte crayon-on-paper pieces by the Belgium-based Kobayashi, a mid-career artist who shows some range with this series. The small works also feature nudes, but light ones possessed of fine harmonic qualities that are set against starry skies as if floating in space. These pieces are from 2005, and priced at around 200,000 yen — quite nice.

The Taka Ishii Gallery, on the same floor as ShugoArts, has a group show at present. “By Design” features work from gallery artists Takeshi Murata, Shiro Kuramata, Midori Araki, Hiroe Saeki, Andrea Zittel, Jack Pierson and Jorge Pardo, and provides a good introduction to the Taka Ishii — the low-lit and tasteful ensemble serving to illustrate its inclination toward the more poised and elegant in contemporary art.

An indication of the optimism surrounding the new location of Kiyosumi galleries is the opening of the Taka Ishii’s new project room, Sora Gallery, in Kayabacho. The satellite 40-sq.-meter space provides a good opportunity for the gallery to develop its emerging artists, and though it maybe a little far to make it a comfortable walking distance from Kiyosumi, it’s definitely in the same neck of the woods.

That said, I didn’t have the energy to get out there last Friday after the Kiyosumi opening, but the Sora’s second show presents Naoko Tamura’s sensual photography, and the pictures I have seen from the show are misty, almost abstract.

Back at Kiyosumi, in the Hiromi Yoshii Gallery we find photography from the young artist duo “Niwa,” which was formed last summer by Ryo Suzuki and Nao Tsuda. The show, the pair’s first, is called “Knot,” and it blends straight photography and mixed media with a short video piece thrown in for good measure.

A reference to the nautical unit of speed, “Knot” has pleasant but not exceptional photographs of boat masts and rigging set against the skies of Normandy, from a trip the pair made last year. Also here is a navigational diagram turned dartboard that is used to plot an imaginary journey both inland and out to sea from the French coastal city of Le Havre. (The artists threw darts at the chart, and the somewhat random points where their projectiles landed were transcribed into directions on an attendant map.) A small collection of navigational instruments does little to make this much more than conceptual art school meanderings. Better is the one-minute video loop of a lighthouse beacon, the ever-circling light accompanied by an audio track of rhythmically lapping waves.

Finally, the Tomio Koyama Gallery — the largest of the Kiyosumi spaces — is showing an excellent collection of old and new work from Kishio Suga, who hails from the Tamabi Group of Mono-ha artists who formed in the early 1970s. (In a concurrent show, the Tokyo Gallery in Ginza is also showing new work from Suga.) This was an avant-garde circle grouped around Tama Art University Professor Yoshishige Saito, and closely associated with Lee U Fan, who is generally regarded as the founder of Mono-ha and who believed that materials used in a work should presented almost untouched, free from an artist’s subjective interpretation.

Mono-ha could be likened to Italy’s Arte Povera of the 1960s. However, unlike Italy’s Paolini or Pistoletto, who half-mocked the sticks and stones they used to make art, the Mono-ha fellows held the same objects in reverence, looking to explore the nature of things through their work.

The first room here has a series of Suga monochrome photographs from the early ’70s, along with a video presentation of Suga’s new work in which he arranges — you guessed it — twigs and scraps of paper and so on.

In the Koyama’s main space we see Suga’s new installations — the sort of big stuff that Tokyo galleries pre-Kiyosumi (excepting the now-defunct Sagacho) had never been able to exhibit due to a lack of space and low ceilings. These are wooden constructions towering several meters tall, with rocks, cables and glass used as counterpoints. A powerful study of the intrinsic qualities of the materials and the confluence of disparate energies, it must be a joy for Suga, 62, to finally be able to show on this scale in his native country.

In all, it could be said that the galleries here have found their form and, in Tokyo, Kiyosumi is definitely the place to be for contemporary art.