The title of Yu Kiwanami’s “Confirmation of Happiness” (2013) is, in a sense, a kind of betrayal; for happiness cannot, in fact, be confirmed. A woman stands before a landscape, her head cropped off by the top edge of the picture in an artistic act of decapitation. With no head, we cannot see if she smiles or not, and the body language is oblique. The landscape, dark and craggy with low horizon and an expansive empty sky, speaks more to a bleak and near-sinister psychology.
Kiwanami invariably trims the heads off his figures, mostly women, though there are two other portraits of men in the exhibition that are treated similarly. His models are based on those found in fashion magazines, usually smartly dressed. But even when heads are depicted, their faces are always obscured. Lacking identity, the personalities of the figures fall as flat as their two-dimensional treatment — graphic delineation in black lines, and bodies that forgo volumetric modulation. The figural attention is to body surfaces and attire.
A fundamental shift in Kiwanami’s most recent painting is to fuse this two-dimensional graphic style he has pursued almost exclusively until 2012 with a newfound interest in French Impressionism. The fusion is incremental.
In “Lesson 1” (2013), a woman looks down to the ground and lifts her dress as if in a curtsey. She is painted in a flat, graphic way, in black contours with little structural or contrastive modulation of the body surface. She treads on some scattered flower heads, which are treated in a painterly way in textured and layered brush strokes. Trampling flat nature’s lopped-off beauties with her foot, the woman resonates not only with Kiwanami’s figural beheadings but also with the fluctuations within Impressionism between the two- and the three-dimensional, surface effects and perspective.
In “Lesson 2” (2013), a woman, wearing a floral print dress done in painterly designs, lies on the ground seductively as her breasts bulge out the top of her dress. A ribbon is crumpled before her and it is painted in a much more volumetric way. Kiwanami’s concerns are with juxtapositions in his work of two-dimensional and three-dimensional treatments of objects and subjects, which are not entirely integrated and thus can almost seem to inhabit separate worlds.
“Untitled” (2013) is a work for which Kiwanami thoroughly combines his take on Impressionism with the flat, graphic quality of his figure painting. The forest background is based upon a photo the artist took in Kyoto’s botanical garden. There’s a painterly approach to the trees and foliage, through which falls suffused light. A woman with her back to us gently tugs at her dress. Her body is rendered two-dimensionally — though the landscape is in three-dimensional modulations of color and light, an effect that suggests similar techniques found in some Japanese animation. With background vistas appearing virtually photographic, the characters themselves are, like anime, rendered less fleshy, though a distinction would be that Kiwanami’s paintings lack anime’s requisite narratives.
“Appetite for Painting” at the imura art gallery, Kyoto, runs till June 22; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun., Mon. and holidays. www.imuraart.com/en/exhibition/archive/appe.html.