VOCA: A look at the state of 2-D

by Donald Eubank

Given the profusion of events lined up for next week, it’s easy to believe that Tokyo is going through a contemporary art renaissance. Since the opening of the Mori Art Museum in 2003, contemporary art has arguably enjoyed a higher profile than it has in the past 30 years in Japan.

Through a combination of the savvy support of the family behind it, its flashy facility in central Tokyo, and mainstream marketing efforts, the Mori has turned exhibitions that feature the latest in art — rather than the usual collections of dead European painters — into blockbusters with the public. In combination with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo and Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, weekend museum-dabblers have been slowly educated in the strange and challenging forms that contemporary art can take.

To see where Japanese artists who produce such works begin their museum careers, take a look at the 15th “Vision of Contemporary Art” exhibition, showing till Sunday at the Royal Ueno Museum. Chosen by submissions from curators, critics and scholars, the show brings together rising artists under the age of 40 who the committee believes are the country’s next generation of creators in two-dimensional media.

This year’s award winners are fully deserving of attention. Yusako Fujiwara, a well-traveled painter and installation artist, has won the VOCA Excellence Prize for his 3.5-meter work “from SKY, to the SKY,” which he says is a work in progress. Working on wood, Fujiwara carves away the paint that he applies, creating odd organic forms — plant and animal — on an undulating backdrop of bright colors and cosmic elements. The artist says that even when his works come off the walls after gallery shows, he is likely to continue carving away and painting them, always looking for the final piece of the puzzle he is playing with.

Masae Ito’s “Unforgotten Accident” is another surprising standout. The painting, awarded VOCA’s Encouragement Prize, appears at first to be a gentle pastoral scene of bright flowers. But prolonged viewing reveals a commotion, a tempestuous whirlwind that has blown up on a sunny day, and, with the title in mind, splashes of red suggest some act of violence — maybe not a big one, but still — to unsettle the seeming calm.

It is a painterly work, depending on brush strokes and daubs of color similar to those of respected New York-based U.K. painter Cecily Brown, whose loose works, while appearing abstract, contain multitudes of recognizable forms. Ito is in a show at Kamakura Gallery ( www.kamakura-g.com ) in Kanagawa Prefecture till May 5, and it would be interesting to see her other works.

The 2008 VOCA Prize has been given to Kentaro Yokuchi, whose watery washes on satin hide landscapes, figures and temples. The satin shines attractively, and discovering the story in the dye is intriguing, but the overall composition can be blotchy from afar. Yokuchi will be onto something strong when the overall effect and the concealed interior one come into some agreement.

Rikiya Iwakuma, who studied filmmaking before realizing that it was easier to work alone as a painter, has won the Ohara Museum of Art Prize for two paintings on polyester fabric. Iwakuma first paints recognizable forms — animals and hands — before soaking the canvases so that the forms lose their meaning. The resulting images appear like traditional ink paintings of mysterious, misty mountains covered in flowing waterfalls.

Naoko Sekine also references the traditional in her nearly 4-meter drawing “Panorama.” Presenting a wide wash of gray with a single mountaintop peaking through what appears to be a sea of clouds, Sekine uses an eraser to make pencil marks act as if they were the pigment in a nihonga (Japanese- style painting). “Panorama” is reminiscent of the skyscapes of Kiyoshi Nakagami that recently showed at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura.

There are other great works here: In “Fishing,” a triptych of photos by Keiko Sasaoka, an angler’s rod disappears in an infinite sky; Masaya Chiba cleverly uses a dirty studio blanket as a canvas — surely an accident born of boredom — for an abstract composition; Akio Morisako’s silk screen “Children of the Forest” dazzles in its intricacy when viewed close up but is distracting from a distance; and Akihiko Amano’s large ink-on-paper “cibt” (minus the distracting smiley face at the bottom) repeatedly suggests the forms of a body while never actually resolving into any.

As a testament to the varieties of creative energy flowing through the current scene, the VOCA is a great selection of works. If you plan to take advantage of the week of contemporary art coming up in the beginning of April, this show at the Royal Ueno Museum is a great place to train your eye in advance to figure out what you personally like.

“Vision of Contemporary Art 2008″ shows till Sunday at the Royal Ueno Museum; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission ¥500. For more information call (03) 3833-4191 or visit www.ueno-mori.org