New art horizons seen from Kansai

by Matthew Larking

While the progression of Japanese art within the last decade is being celebrated at the “Garden of Painting” exhibition at The National Museum of Art in Osaka, other galleries in the area, such as the Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, and the YOD Gallery, Osaka, have launched group exhibitions proposing directions for the next generation.

There are few threads that can draw together all the various manifestations of contemporary art, but the artists exhibited at Tomio Koyama Gallery’s “Paintings by Four Artists” and the YOD’s “Under 100″ exhibitions each suggest approaches pregnant with potential for the coming decade, and they are refreshingly free of the east-Japan influence of Takashi Murakami.

‘Paintings by Four Artists’

Toru Kuwakubo (b. 1978) made the unusual admission that he sees his work as heir to French Impressionism — a style that is now often unfairly associated with calendars and hotel-room paintings. In “Scatterer with Setting Sun and Mountains” (2009), the viewer can see his formal debt to the Pointillist style of short thick brushstrokes in viscous bright colors. The painting appears hazy, and the roughly sketched figures populating the basin surrounded by mountains are swallowed up by the landscape as if being assimilated into nature itself. Kuwakubo began his painting career by reinventing himself as a fictitious artist, acting out the role of how he felt an artist should behave and imitating how he thought they should paint. Now, the fiction and the reality have apparently coalesced.

Satoshi Ohno’s (b. 1980) work flies in two directions. In one series of small untitled works in ink and oil, he depicts demonic-looking naked women with long scraggly hair and bulbous breasts. Some sport oozing erections, further complicating his maddened form of hybrid femininity. Two large untitled canvases, however, exhibit a completely different style, as Ohno combines bursts of spray paint with brushwork to illustrate abstract forms with figurative connections to repetitive motifs, such as a primeval forest. The two canvases appear to be vast symbolic amalgams of Jungian decorative symbols.

Daisuke Fukunaga’s (b. 1981) paintings of forgotten spaces, full of derelict objects, highlight the inevitability of slow decay. “Play” (2009) depicts a corrugated shed before which a tire swing and three bird houses hang from a gnarled tree. Refuse litters the ground and a twilight sky adds the somber suggestion of something coming to an end. In other works, such as “Locker Room” (2009), Fukunaga returns to his familiar motifs of upright floor mops, which he anthropomorphizes with figure-like poses.

Makiko Kudo (b. 1978) also depicts what she calls “estranged” places in her work. Kudo, however, fills her spaces with what at first appear to be light-hearted depictions of innocence in youth. On closer inspection, though, her poignant scenes of cute boys and girls have a slightly sinister feel.

‘Under 100′

The YOD Gallery and fabre8710 gallery’s experimental exhibition “Under 100″ hangs all of its works less than 100 cm above ground so that viewers are forced to crouch down to view them. This, the YOD explains on its Web site, is to encourage visitors to be more engaged in their viewing of the artworks.

Three artists are represented at YOD (four more are being represented at fabre8710, also in Osaka) each offering very different strains of art abstraction. The hypergeometries of Takuro Sugiyama (b. 1983) appear to be inspired by the somewhat sterile tradition of European and American geometric abstraction. Where Sugiyama departs, however, is in the subjectivity of his impossibly convoluted patterns, the angular formations and restricted palette being improvised as the paintings take shape. While his works resemble mutated fractals, he shuns the short-cut of digital enhancement.

Ken Kagajo (b. 1974), who studied traditional Japanese paste-resist dyeing techniques at Osaka University of Arts, defies the usual conventions of this dyeing process by using it as a medium for contemporary art. This has roused the ire of some Kyoto-based traditionalists who consider the easy duplication of pieces as one of the qualities of the craft, something that cannot be done with Kagajo’s works. Kagajo takes two approaches: “One in Temperature” (2010) uses bleach to create patterns on velvet overlaid on board, “Rainbow” (2010) morphs poisonous-looking colors reminiscent of hippie tie-dye T-shirts into a formal geometrical structure of bands that contrast with the amorphous permeation of the dyes.

The sculpture of Masashi Hattori (b. 1977) abstract the human figure, as seen in “Me O Mawaru O Hito” (2009) in which a humanoid form, covered in plastic eyes, rises from a frying pan. In this exhibition, Hattori works with similar imagery but with a different intent. For “Uroyakaba O Arigato” (2010), Hattori has created a leather suit with nickel-buttons, based on the human form, which is pinned to the wall at the waist so that the upper-half flops over as if it is bowing. If you lift the torso, you will see the words “baka yarou” (“you idiot”) written across the front, and if you lower it again the back, bizarrely, has “arigato” (“thank you”) written on it.

While it is far too early to single out the artists who are likely to become principal ones in the next decade, both of these exhibitions provide an opportunity to contemplate the directions held to be important by current emerging artists.

“Paintings by Four Artists” at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, Kyoto, runs till Jan. 1; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Sun., Mon. and national holidays); free admission. For more information visit www.tomiokoyama gallery.com “Under 100″ at the YOD Gallery, Osaka, runs till Feb. 6; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Sun. and Mon.); free admission. For more information, visit www.yodgallery.com