Hitoko Urago’s ‘Connected’: blot-tests of portraiture

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Hitoko Urago pairs paintings — portraits with abstractions — though each work is not necessarily conceived at the same time. “Untitled (Lynda)” (2012), for example, depicts a profile of a black woman with big hair against a green background. She is paired with a soft, spotty green abstraction, which becomes more of a chromatic harmony complementing the visage.

The pairing makes the artist’s extremely beautiful women all the more alluring. In “Triangular Utopia ‘Connected’/ I go to bed” (2012), we get a vortex of orange and red triangular abstraction paired with a full-length portrait of a woman in a see-through nightgown open to the navel, breasts bared. It is nearly unavoidable to link the hot colors and pointed abstraction to the come-hither eyes and overt sexual disposition. Such subject matter is related to Urago’s art training and her work styling models while living in London.

While the artist says she largely takes her inspiration from musical impressions and is not directly influenced by the history of Western painting (though she is always aware of it), there is an almost clandestine linking of cosmetic concerns with 20th-century modernism.

“As I Watch Him Go — Triangle II Study 3-1″ is a Paul Klee-type abstraction of little triangles in various colors, whose geometrical arrangement could almost be that of several hundred eye shadows in a palette. That abstraction is utilized as a backdrop against which a supermodel figure in a swimsuit poses provocatively.

When abstract painting becomes background decoration for pop culture, it reflects a deep fear of mid-20th-century theorizing of abstraction, that it could be demoted to mere decoration. The critic Harold Rosenberg, for example, referred to Jackson Pollock’s canvasses as “apocalyptic wallpaper,” and advocates of the high seriousness of abstract art were compelled to rally against the demotion of such paintings to “house decoration.” In Urago’s case, the abstraction means more than just something a model can stand out against.

Other suggestive works include “Untitled (Katharine),” which borrows something of the abstract in its smears of paint that are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s work or the “flag” paintings of Jasper Johns. Rendered in pink, however, a color rarely used in serious painting outside feminist works, the piece becomes “pretty” and, arguably though intriguingly, girlish.

Urago says her abstractions are largely intuitive, while the portraits mostly logical; she wants to bring them together in their theoretical disagreement. As the title of the exhibition, “Connected,” suggests, in doing so she also draws together her interests in the consciousness and unconsciousness of artistic activity, sounds and shapes.

But it is the overwhelmingly unusual combination of complementary abstractions with pop culture portraits, such as that of actress Lindsey Lohan, that leave a distinctive mark.

“Connected” at the Mori Yu Gallery, Kyoto, runs till March 30; open 12 p.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun., Mon. www.moriyu-gallery.com/index.html?l=en.