CONTEMPORARY IN KANSAI

Creating atmospheres

by Matthew Larking

An array of recent exhibitions in Kyoto and Osaka offers an engaging cross section of contemporary art practice in western Japan.

Fifty-two year-old Masahito Katayama’s most ambitious recent work, the 1,000-piece “Membrane” (2004), which took just shy of a year to complete, is showing at Osaka’s Nomart Contemporary Art. The number of pieces in the work refers to the 1,001 sculptures of the 1,000-armed Senju Kannon in Kyoto’s Sanjusangendo, which give off an unearthly golden glow in the dark shadows of their surroundings. The Fukuoka-based Katayama made the surfaces of the pieces either reflective or absorptive — like the surface of water — so that the eye keeps darting and pausing, suspended indefinitely.

The work is spread over three of Nomart’s walls, and the circular shapes have microscopic-like organic patterns of dots and meshes painted on them in yellows and purples. The designs are botanical, though there is a definite abstract appeal to his works as in Monet’s late “Water Lily” paintings from Giverny.

Landscapes by the Kyoto-based painter Torawo Nakagawa in “Air Fort” at Osaka’s Kodama Gallery range from figurative to abstract. The 33-year-old Nakagawa attempts to capture something of what lays between the reality of a landscape and the what viewers perceive as mediated by atmosphere and lighting. Balloonlike forms that float through some vistas as indicators of atmospheric movements and intangibility are further allusive, as are the thin washes of color that let paint from beneath show through, lending an ethereal, veiled quality to the works.

In “Early Evening” (2007), crisp line-work incised into the surface forms mountain ridges while softer, voluminous clouds unfold above. The representation of the atmosphere of a place harks back to earlier painting traditions held to be symbolic of Asian thought in general, and Japanese spirit in particular, such as the ink landscapes by Sesshu (1420-1506) and vague tonal modulations of the turn-of-the-20th-century Morotai style from the Japan Art Institute that aimed to evoke “air.”

In “Geopolitics” at Voice Gallery, Alimo brings together a handful of paintings, production designs and an animation. After leaving Tama Art University, 30-year-old Alimo became an assistant to art star Takashi Murakami before developing an interest in animation while involved with the Ghibli Museum, which holds works by the acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki. The animation at the Voice was worked out in oil paint on a single canvas, with additions and erasures to the painting photographed to create the individual frames for the final moving image.

In “Rizo,” which refers to the martial-arts hero Bruce Lee, who emerges from the work, Alimo pieced together 3,500 photographs to tackle themes of conflict, displacement and ruin in Sarajevo, which was not widely covered by Japanese media relative to 9/11. An earlier animation, “A White House is Far,” makes the artist’s central concern clear. Alimo became transfixed through TV by the spectacle of people dying and has taken up themes of war in far flung places as a form of personal engagement with distant politics.

Upcoming at Voice Gallery from May 25, “She Acts Heroic Scene” by Kanazawa-based artist Shinsuke Kotani will turn to a more private world run through with erotic themes in Micro-Pop Japanimation style.

Chie Matsui, known for her installations in the 1980s, has since created a hybridization of short films, prints and paintings. The occasion for “An Allegorical Vessel — Heidi 47″ at Osaka’s MEM Gallery, concerns CD jacket art she did for the performer HACO’s album “RISKA,” and a handful of works in paint and ink.

Female bodies are predominant though mostly they are partially formed and dissolve back into miasmatic blotches of color or become blurred by degrees. In others, the lines which draw the body also thread into landscapes or out of tree trunks. In another work, a vaguely delineated figure lying prostrate morphs into flesh-colored meaty slabs.

Throughout these exhibitions there is a similar appearance of sloppiness or randomness in the painted works that hides a purposeful exploration of color fields and color dynamics. With the exception of Alimo, there is an emphasis on creating atmospheres and environments rather than specific, singular narratives. In the end, Katayama’s installation is probably the most absorbing as it immerses viewers entirely in a work, while Matsui’s work is arguably the more stubborn in making clear its intentions.