Hidden truths laid bare in the details of realism

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

With a population of around 35 million, Greater Tokyo is the ultimate “modernist” conurbation; a vast megacity, where something as old-fashioned as realist art might seem out-of-date and out-of-place. Maybe so, but on the metropolis’ western and eastern extremities stand two museums that, each in their own way, evoke the power and potential of realism.

One is the Takao Trick Art Museum, a venue in the shadows of Tokyo’s western mountains that delights in the illusionist aspects of realism. The other is the Hoki Museum, an architectural masterpiece located in Toke on the eastern edge of Chiba City, which houses works by Japan’s best contemporary realist artists.

The Trick Art Museum reveals the potent effects that realism has been able to generate, using the rules of perspective, shading, and other optical tricks discovered in the Italian Renaissance. This reveals the power that lies within realism, although the emphasis here is on entertainment rather than awe.

The Hoki Museum takes its art a lot more seriously, housing its collection in a building designed to filter out distractions. This has been done by “erasing” the ostentatious elements of architecture, such as doorways, corners, light fixtures, and even the joins between wall, floor, and ceiling, to create an elongated, seamless space that favors a more intense appreciation of the paintings.

Although essentially a home for a growing permanent collection of realist art, the museum periodically stages special exhibitions curated by its founder, Masao Hoki. These seek to shed new light on aspects of realist art, such as the latest show, “Realism: Its Potential and Challenges.”

The challenge in this case was a very open-ended one. Hoki simply asked 15 artists, whose work he collects, to paint several works each on the theme of “My Best Work,” granting them full freedom to interpret the theme as they wished, and then selecting the best ones for the exhibition.

“These are the works that represent the ‘beings’ of the artists and the new themes that they really wanted to paint, and which employ ever-more effective technical means,” Hoki explained in a recent interview. “These works have a sense of existence and newness that distinguish them from the realism of just copying.”

This reveals a central idea that Hoki follows in his curatorial approach: that the technical challenges and difficulties of realism are not a constraint upon the expressiveness, creativity and personality of the artist, but rather a process by which the painter finds a unique voice and in the process becomes a true individual artist.

This is borne out by the paintings in the exhibition. On one level, they are painted with a visual veracity that allows lazy comparisons to photography; but, on another, it is clear that each of the “human cameras” involved is quite distinct, exhibiting a unique combination of perception, preference, skill, and nuance that is channeled and focused through the disciplines of realism.

The artists have responded to Hoki’s challenge by taking a number of different directions. While some have opted to paint people, including a heartfelt portrait of Hoki himself, others have channeled their creativity toward landscape and still life. But, even where the subject choice is similar, the treatment diverges.

Fumihiko Gomi’s “The Woman Who Loved Beards” (2012) shows a fragmented close-up, suggestive of a broken mirror or a torn-up photograph. Nobuyuki Shimamura’s “Wishing” (2012), by contrast, is a simple, charming image of a dreamy girl, with a subtle hint of time passing in the clock motif of the table.

Shimamura also presents us with a full frontal nude, “Contraposto I” (2011), while the works of Kenichiro Ishiguro play games with concealment. “Idle Slumber” (1993-2012) shows a man sleeping on a park bench, his face covered beneath a hat.

As you peruse these works, you start to develop a clearer notion of the personality of each painter than you would at a typical exhibition of conceptual or abstract art. But, according to the museum’s chief architect, Tomohiko Yamanashi, the paintings at the Hoki also have a “micro-abstract” aspect, which the building helps to bring out.

“Usually this kind of art appears in a very classical and decorative situation,” explains Yamanashi. “But I thought if we could erase the architecture itself, then maybe people would look closer and deeper at this art and see its abstract qualities as well. If we see abstract art, we realize it’s not an illusion, but a kind of combination of pigment and materials. But if you look at realist art very, very carefully, you realize that the same kind of thing is happening on the canvas.”

For over a century the art world had been dominated by non-realist art, but with the avant-garde increasingly running out of ideas, the future of art may well lie in a return to a reinvigorated realism. In that case the Hoki Museum is positioned to play a key role.

“Realism: Its Potential and Challenges” at the Hoki Museum runs till May 19; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri and Sat. till 6 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Wed. www.hoki-museum.jp.