NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ART, OSAKA

Three artists piece together contemporary Japanese art

by Matthew Larking

Art since the 1960s has reveled in a directional pluralism devoid of dominant mediums or movements, with no consensus on how the range of artists and styles might add up to a more significant whole.

The contentious and multiple directions that contemporary art takes, though, are what makes it most interesting.

For several years, The National Museum of Art, Osaka, has been staging a series of exhibitions titled “Recent Works” that fete early and mid-career artists expected to play significant roles in Japan’s contemporary art world.

The current offering, “Three Individuals: Zon Ito, Hajime Imamura, Yoshihiro Suda,” brings together diverse works in three concurrent solo shows.

Yoshihiro Suda’s work is arguably the most graceful and certainly the most culturally and historically engaged. He is known for meticulously carving flowers and leaves from hackberry wood and painting them in realistic colors using the ground-mineral pigments common to nihonga Japanese painting. The carvings are usually placed in gallery areas that frequently go unnoticed. A work such as “Weeds” (2006), set into the cracks of the concrete gallery floor, creates a sense of wonder at having found a little treasure where least expected. The piece invests the surrounding gallery space with a tension due to the surprising difference in scale between the ornamental flora and monumental exhibition space.

Suda is also showing small flowers in minimal white passageways that evoke the architecture of the tokonoma — the alcove space in Japanese-style rooms in which seasonal scrolls or flowers are arranged. The flowers, such as “Pueraria lobata” (1996) (a vine that grows in spring), are carefully composed in recesses whose details and atmosphere hark back to refined Japanese cultural pursuits such as tea ceremony. Another work, “Sleeping Lotus” (2002), references the flower as the symbol of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect of Buddhism in Japan, and to earlier Indian creation myths where the flower sprouted from Vishnu’s navel before Brahma created the universe.

In contrast to Suda’s appropriation of nature, Hajime Imamura works with the modern and the unnatural. His oeuvre is an eclectic and enigmatic one that moves from propeller-powered spinning disks and spirals to luminescent lights and weathered and outdated everyday items. In “2003-12 ‘SOTO’ NO BASHO — poriperu,” a blue plastic bin has literally been turned inside out. The handle on the lid and the lines scoring the outer surface now mark the lining of the bin, and the same goes for a teapot where the handle and spout have moved into the interior of the vessel. In losing their value as useful domestic items, these pieces evolve into artistic abstractions.

In “2002-11 le — reizoko,” a refrigerator with the door ajar, a green fern frond, an Imamura trademark, finds its way into the design. On top of the fridge sits an aluminum kettle whose sides have had hexagonal shapes cut from them, leaving a lattice-like shell intimating a kind of hidden structure to the container. Filling the inside of the fridge is a nebulously thin mesh-wire design mimicking the structure of the latticework kettle. The artist’s fondness for the continuity of elements between different works means that the wire structure and the fern end up in several other pieces such as “2005-12 JUDOSEI-shida (PASSIVITY– ferns),” a cell-like formation of contiguous octagonal shapes made from aluminum rods that spreads airily through a large portion of the gallery.

Zon Ito uses embroidery to create images that are not strictly part of the conventional handicraft medium. The rough and tactile stitches knit together into snippets of recognizable imagery, but also dissolve into illegible configurations bordering on abstraction. With their staccato lines, the works imagine volatile and indefinite worlds and landscapes full of movement, mutability and truncated imagery and meanings.

Combining incommensurable imagery, such as in “Traveling in a Shallows” (2001) where a fish flies above land — or is swimming in water — and a man is submerged in a stream to the ankles — or his feet have punctured the sky — is a surrealist-inspired approach to picture-making. So too is the kind of visual play in “Wild Sticker” (2005), where delineated shapes of animals and birds seem to interlock as do pieces in jigsaw puzzles.

The three artists were selected by three of the principal curators at the Osaka museum, so it is probably only natural to expect that the exhibition is a dis-unified group show that leaves it to spectators to imagine in what ways the various works might connect. That said, it is perhaps too early to fully absorb how these three artists might add up to a larger pattern in contemporary Japanese art — but this is the reason for bringing together the three solo shows beneath a single roof.