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MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

Looking at the garish and the free

by Monty Dipietro

Let’s face it, there really is nothing like the face. Lovers dream of faces, poets stretch and struggle to juggle the words so that they might capture and communicate a countenance. Even businesspeople, the ultimate pragmatists, will travel across towns or oceans — when a telephone or e-mail could serve to exchange the same information — in order to meet face-to-face.

In contemporary culture, faces are mediated principally through the pervasive print and electronic media. Against this backdrop, South African-born, Dutch-based Marlene Dumas, 53, employs a decidedly painterly style to represent rather than reproduce the face. “Broken White,” her current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MoT), comprises some 250 works, mostly portraits in oil on canvas, or charcoal, diffused watercolor or Indian ink on paper.

The show is well designed: airy, with plenty of white space on the museum’s big walls emphasizing the forceful presence of the pictures. What basically unites Dumas’ work is a specific disregard for naturalism, with splashes and splotches and bleeding green and blue pallors taking the place of flesh tones. The lines, meanwhile, are characterized by simplified or distorted perspectives and exaggerated asymmetry.

Whether the treatment can appropriately be described as “grotesque” is for the viewer to decide. Suffice it to say that Dumas is not looking to capture or embody “beauty” in the traditional sense of the word.

The title of the exhibition, “Broken White,” which refers to the loss of purity or virginity, derives from Dumas’ 2006 painting of the same name that is based on a snapshot by local lubricious lensman Nobuyoshi Araki. In the original photograph, which hangs nearby the painting, one sees a naked young Japanese woman lying on her back, her head tilted to one side, eyes half-closed. The in-close perspective positions the photographer dominantly above the subject’s midsection — gosh, I wonder what little Araki was doing there?

The problem with this show is not that the selection of this work as the title piece panders to Araki’s decade-long crusade to graft artistic legitimacy onto an insidious pornographic misogyny. “Broken White” is but one branch in Dumas’ forest of inspirations and motifs, which include Greek mythology, friends and family, purity, pleasure and pain, and eroticism as well as traditional and contemporary Japanese art. In the final analysis, the question is not where Dumas’ work is coming from, but where it takes the viewer.

Unfortunately, in the few instances where she steps out of her tight-cropped, signature style, with a few still lifes and reclining male nudes that are set against boldly colored landscapes, Dumas loses me. And there are only so many garish and deformed faces I can look at in an afternoon. Walking through the two floors of “Broken White” was an experience that offered ever-diminishing returns.

On the bright side, surprisingly viewable was the serendipitous “Show Me Thai,” a free show now running downstairs at the MoT. The exhibition features 70 artists, both Thai and Japanese who have lived or worked in Thailand. Organized to celebrate the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Thailand, thankfully the show has nothing of the staid atmosphere of most government-sponsored cultural exchanges; rather it is a young and fresh cornucopia of exciting and innovative work in film and video, installation, painting and mixed media.

Thai art superstar Navin Rawanchaikul is center stage, with a tent-cinema screening his hilarious Bollywood parody, in which he sings and dances his way through adventure, romance and unabashed self-promotion. Montien Boonma’s olfactory installation, comprising a circular series of private wooden aroma stations, is but one of many special and unique pieces in this thoroughly enjoyable exhibition. The perfect antidote for Dumas’ sad and suffering visages.