The last splash of spring

by Donald Eubank

Tokyo’s multifaceted gallery scene usually slows down a bit in the summer, so May has seen a whack of openings across the city.

At Nichido Contemporary Art ( www.nca-g.com ) in Chuo Ward’s Hatchobori, critic and writer Kentaro Ichihara has curated a show loosely based on identity. Regardless of the vague explanations of the theme in the press release, mostly it’s a reason to bring together an engaging group of figurative artworks. Most obvious in the gallery’s large rectangular space are two life-size sculptures by cross-gender artist Pyuupiru, who most recently was the most Goth thing about the Yokohama Museum of Art’s “Goth” exhibition. The two humanoid creatures on pedestals at the NCA look like hunchbacked fashion victims suffering under the excesses of the Cat in the Hat’s stylist. They are a playful start, standing next to an installation of paintings, sculptures, paper cuttings and line drawings by Makito Okada that tumble from the wall down onto the floor, reminiscent of Sarah Sze’s sprawling installation at Hermes, but homespun and craftlike rather than ready-made like the American artist’s.

Two series of photographic works fill opposite ends of the room. One is by 2003 Venice Bienale artist (Swiss Pavillion) and NCA favorite Emmanuelle Antille, showing a woman in a brassiere confronting or confronted by an older woman, from Antille’s ongoing exploration of the relationships between mothers and daughters. Across from that are equally large prints by Japanese photographer Masahito Koshinaka. Blurry street shots, they are disorienting at first until you start to make out individuals in the crowds walking across their frames.

Using a macro lens, Koshinaka takes photos of his own prints of Shinjuku crowds, creating an effect like that from tilt-shift cameras (currently popular in those aerial shots by Naoki Honjo that make cities look like architectural models). Used at street level, the camera produces the appearance of abstractions, but ones with the gloss and contrast of film rather than paint. This distances the viewer from the peripheral subjects that meld together, yet ultimately creates an intimate feel by narrowly focusing on the action at the center of the frame. Great stuff.

Showing nearby at Arataniurano ( www.arataniurano.com ) in Shintomi is another group exhibition, improbably named “Recent Drawings.” Improbably because the only drawings on show are works by Yoichi Umetsu (line works unlike hisusual delicate washes of color). Otherwise there are paintings by Izumi Kato, Toshiyuki Konishi and Mana Konishi and a light box by Go Watanabe. Kato is a supreme colorist who has established a readily recognizable style: giant, round heads and childlike but sexualized bodies. These are inspired by the archetypal imagery of ancient cultures — the places where African sculpture, Egyptian iconography and Japanese Jomon Period (10,000 to 300 B.C.) ceramics overlap. Despite the repetition of his subjects — a man, a woman, a child in various juxtapositions — his works remain fresh due to his skill in combining unlikely color combinations to striking effect. Which is no surprise, as Kato has admitted to Web site Tokyo Art Beat that he’s a fan of U.K. painter Francis Bacon, a master of the unexpected palette.

His former student, Konishi, works in a decidedly different style but with a similar psychological intensity. Konishi’s portraits are loose in comparison, capturing the other side of Bacon’s expertise, the suggestion of a solid body in a motion-filled blur of paint. Through squiggles of color that could just be doodles, haunting faces appear. The works on show were already sold out during the New Tokyo Contemporaries exhibition in the Shin Marunouchi building during Tokyo’s de facto art week at the beginning of April.

The best discovery of last week’s openings was Ko Ushijima’s show “Mirage” at Gallery Side 2 ( www.galleryside2.net ) in Minato Ward’s Higashi-Azabu. An illustrator by trade, Ushijima has done a series of works for Side 2 using traditional Japanese materials: washi paper, silver and gold leaf and pigments. The images have a rich and startling effect because of this, their colors jumping off the surface in a lively way that is distinctly different from the power of oil paints.

In the exhibition’s centerpiece, “080325″ (named for the date it was finished), a sparkling, inky black liquid bursts out of a ventilator screen on the side of a building, saturating the grass lawn below. The black stands out bright against the soft white of the walls and the vibrant green below. Remnants of sketches — seeming drafts for the work — come through the washes of pigments, giving the work a purposeful roughness that makes it more personable by freeing it from perfectionism.

A number of compelling artists have in the past years returned to the materials of nihonga (Japanese-style painting), bringing updated approaches to their application and the subjects that they are used to portray. Fuyuko Matsui’s dark images of the body deconstructed seem more backward looking due to their references to the classic Japanese ghost genre, yurei-ga, despite being more properly contemporary in nature due to the modern themes they tackle. Kumi Machida’s minimalist compositions and abstruse social commentary are richer for their use of washi and sumi ink. Elder statesman for the form, Kiyoshi Nakagami, references ink landscapes while avoiding landscapes completely in his images of light and darkness.

As these artists and others pave the way, the more traditional Japanese approaches to art will actually succeed in finding a contemporary vein without falling prey to knee-jerk conservatism that divides the old and the new; in other words, creating works that are Japanese and contemporary. That doesn’t mean that artists here should give up the vein that goes in the direction of the Turner Prize retrospective still running at the Mori Art Museum — purely international contemporary arts — for the purely local. But perhaps both can continue to co-exist — as they have for almost 150 years — rather than nihonga go the way of Japanese crafts. That is, become something beautiful, but a bit repetitive or stale sometimes.

At Side 2, Ushijima’s subjects are very contemporary: architectural elements — houses and their fixtures. They strongly feature water — one work shows a running faucet and another, a blue bath surrounded by gold leaf. The painter says that the the mood he is trying to express is one of anxiety, or something remaining unknown — in the dark. He’s succeeded well, though he adds that he remains neutral as to whether this tension is a positive or negative thing.

Finally, just down the road, the recently opened Take Ninagawa ( www.takeninagawa.com ), formerly Takefloor 404 & 502 in Ebisu, is showing a small selection of works by veteran collagist Shinro Ohtake. Small, because the art star reportedly brought something like 40 one-ton trucks-worth of works to his retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo — the hefty catalog itself took three years to produce.

Ohtake is so prolific at this point he practically owns collage in Japan. At Take Ninagawa, his works read like a travelogue, constructed as they are from print materials that he picked up in Hawaii and Myanmar. The Hawaii ones are composed of 1970s DayGlo clippings from browsed girlie mags, but the Myanmar ones are more like found art, put together from mementos collected on a trip abroad to a curious country. The first of three Ohtake exhibitions to be shown there, the bright summery show lights up the gallery’s small space.