A PROVOCATIVE EXHIBITION

The search for ‘nihonga’ clouds artistic judgements

by Martin Webb

While proponents of contemporary Japanese art do not seem quite as preoccupied with attempts to shock as their Western counterparts, for curators and creators with an eye on finding fame and fortune overseas, courting controversy can seem almost like an obligation.

But for a nation whose artists typically do “cute” and “quirky” far better than “disturbing” or “outrageous,” attempts at being provocative often prove strained.

So is the case at “Nihonga Painting: Six Provocative Artists,” the show currently at the Yokohama Museum of Art. The exhibition is effectively a followup to March’s much-hyped “MOT Annual 2006: No Border — From Nihonga to Nihonga” show at Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which presented seven upcoming artists who were supposedly seeking to channel, confront or subvert the restrictions of traditional Japanese painting.

While “No Border” adopted a dubiously liberal interpretation of what constitutes nihonga, this exhibition uses the label in such a way as to render it meaningless.

The term — literally “Japanese pictures” — is a school of painting started in the 1880s when the American Ernest Fellonosa, a professor of philosophy at the Imperial University of Tokyo, coined the term with critic and painter Okakura Kakuzo to counter what he saw as the debilitating influence of Western trends in modern art on traditional Japanese image-making.

Under the direction of Yokohama-born Okakura, styles from several traditional schools of painting were absorbed by artists working under this new artistic umbrella, and nihonga eventually came to refer to artists who painted on paper and silk with the mineral pigments used by earlier generations of Japanese artists, while adhering to age-old conventions of subject matter.

Strictly speaking, they were to stick to kacho fugetsu (flowers, birds, wind, moon) and accepted genres, including landscapes, wildlife and depictions of historical or mythical figures.

Each of the six artists on show here has been asked to select works from the extensive nihonga archives at the museum to show alongside their own creations, in an attempt to highlight the evolution of the form. The concept works well for some, but is exasperatingly irrelevant for others, particularly the three artists — Kengo Nakamura, Kotobuki Shiriagari and Rai Fuji — whose works can boast only the most tenuous links with nihonga.

Using pigments made from minerals, charcoal and whalebone to achieve sophisticated surface effects, nihonga tends toward a hazy, ethereal look, and it is this spectral quality that art-world supernova Fuyuko Matsui has captured to greatest effect. At the same time she has, quite successfully, defied the medium’s codification of what can and cannot be portrayed.

Nihonga’s reactionary founders would probably be horrified to see Matsui’s “Keeping Up the Pureness” (2004), which depicts a naked woman with her chest opened like a dissection study, or other disturbing images such as “Becoming Friends with All the Children in the World” (2005).

Matsui, who will celebrate her 32nd birthday in November, turned from oils to Japanese-style painting while preparing to enter Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. She cites the formalism of nihonga as one of its attractions, particularly in regards to the process of painting.

It can hardly have hurt Matsui’s cause that she is a stunningly beautiful woman, but her rigorous adherence to the techniques of her adopted genre has been rewarded with effusive praise by even the most conservative of critics, in spite of all the unsettling imagery.

To a greater extent than her contemporaries, Matsui is able to conjure up original, genuinely provocative and powerful images that go beyond being a riff on the medium’s rigid conventions to ask searching questions about sanity, dreams, ghosts and beauty.

Her haunting work is undoubtedly the highlight here, but there are five other artists also on show: The first to greet visitors is Rai Fuji, a 25-year-old art school dropout who quotes Yoshida Kenko’s “Essays in Idleness” (c. 1331) in his artist’s statement: “What a strange, demented feeling it gives when I realize I have spent whole days at this ink stone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.”

The passage is appropriate as Fuji presents a series of slapdash scribbled sketches. All postcard size, they are lined up at chest height in a long series that snakes around the gallery space. Who knows if the curators of the exhibition are trying to give Fuji his big break — this is his first exhibition — but “demented” is certainly a suitable epithet for these sloppy, uninspired doodles.

The controversial lineup continues with the inclusion of manga artist Kotobuki Shiriagari, whose “Yaji and Kita” picked up the 2001 Tezuka Osamu prize and was turned into a 2005 motion picture, “Mayonaka no Yaji-san, Kita-san,” directed by Kankuro Kudo. Shiriagari’s attempt at being provocative comes in the form of one of the museum’s skylight-lit rooms draped with paper splattered with ink drawings. Though it looks like a lot of fun to make (16 assistants are credited in the program), the connection with nihonga — with fine art, even — is spurious.

Next up is the 37-year-old painter Kengo Nakamura. Nakamura appears to have knocked out three new pieces from his ongoing “Without Me” series in mineral pigment on Japanese paper to conform to the exhibition’s nihonga brief. But otherwise, these pieces — silhouetted, interlinking cartoon characters — have nothing to do with the nihonga tradition.

Even less relevant is his “Composition Tokyo” installation comprised of 72 shoebox-sized apartment floor-plans painted with blocks of color in a boldfaced reference to Mondrian. Nakamura certainly serves up pleasing shapes and colors, and his referential irreverence is worthy of a smirk, but there is nothing nourishing within these works.

Far more rewarding is what’s in the darkened room next door by video installation artist Mami Kosemura. Her “Flowering Plants of the Four Seasons” is an animated film in the style of byobu-e (screen painting) and shoheki-e (wall painting) projected onto screens, as if animating these traditional canvases. Carp glide through a lake and flowers morph before the viewer’s eyes in a clever updating of ancient art forms.

In Kosemura’s two other video installations, a sinister, morbid mood echoes Japan’s current preoccupation with horror, much like the dark, Gothic vision of Matsui. In “Comb,” a woman whose face is obscured by darkness combs her hair, and in “Woman in the Mirror,” a kimono-clad woman shuffles in front of a mirror.

Also dark and mysterious is the work of Kiyoshi Nakagami, who, at 57, is by far the most senior of the “provocative” artists lined up — and the least provocative. His seven acrylic-on-canvas depictions of a single star shining through a cloudy night sky are mesmerizing, and fall under the nihonga umbrella in subject matter if not technique. But there is nothing subversive about them, compounding the sense that the exhibition is being sold under false pretenses.

Although attempts by Japan’s art establishment to label contemporary art that draws on traditional imagery as “nihonga” may seem a disingenuous hijacking of the term, art movements do need names. In that sense the designation serves to conveniently package the likes of fashionable painters Hisashi Tenmyouya, Akira Yamaguchi and Kumi Machida — all of whom appropriate traditional art forms to satirize 21st-century society — into an easily recognizable group.

But several of these artists have expressed frustration at being grouped under what they perceive as a misleading label. It is arguably only Fuyuko Matsui, Seiya Shinotsuka and Akira Nagasawa, all of whom were featured at the MOT’s “No Border” show, whose work could be usefully termed nihonga. For Tenmyouya, Yamaguchi et al., perhaps a more appropriate name would be “jidaimono” — next generation things.