Three artists wondering in the darkness

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Special To The Japan Times

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Hajime Sawatari is 76 and alone. He’s technically still married, but found that photography and chasing skirt didn’t sit well with being in a monogamous relationship.

“I want to be free to photograph what I want. I’m very self-centered,” he tells me, disarmingly.

In the early 1970s Sawatari created the photo book “Alice,” which featured full-frontal nude shots of a pre-pubescent girl. “That couldn’t be done now, things are much more strict,” he says, expressing no regret for his very gendered scopophilia, but for aging in a society that, in his view, has become more prudish.

His series “Rain,” a flaneur’s impressionistic vision of Tokyo at night, seen through a veil of rainwater and deliberately lax focusing, is on show at the Yuka Tsuruno Gallery alongside the work of younger artists Yusuke Yamatani and Tomona Matsukawa. Sawatari’s series is melancholic, sentimental and sensuous; the kind of pictures that inexperienced photographers attempt too often because it looks easy. Sawatari’s “Rain,” however, exhibits the discernment of someone who has committed himself to image-making as a way of life.

Yamatani is transitioning from punk rocker to family man. His infrared images of houses glowing specter-like in the dark are partly spurred by a curiosity of where this change in life will take him.

In contrast to Sawatari’s work, Yamatani plays with the idea of the camera as a forensic tool. The everyday dramas of other people’s lives are a mystery; the concrete of the relatively featureless and uninspiring suburban houses are too thick to allow the infrared to give us a clue as to what’s going on inside. At the same time, the blandness of the buildings suggest that Yamatani may not be entirely convinced that there is drama to be had from everyday life in the burbs. If Sawatari is performing the role of anti-hero, Yamatani is a superhero whose powers have been blunted by the deadly weight of “settling down.”

“I have to face up to what I really am … I still go clubbing, but not as much as before,” Yamatani says.

To these roaming observations of outdoors, Matsukawa’s work is a counterpoint of interiors. She has collaborated with Yamatani to create paintings based on his infrared photography, but her main contribution to the show are photo-realistic paintings that depict women in close-up. The images seem placid in execution and composition, but fizzle with tension and unspecified distress. Hands, heads and legs emerge out of dark nondescript backgrounds, which, like Yamatani’s photography, communicate a hammering oppression in their lack of decorative character. Without names or faces, Matsukawa avoids telling a particular story and expertly conveys a generalized and abstracted sense of unknown past events leaving a traumatic mark on her subjects.

“Yusuke Yamatani & Tomona Matsukawa, at home + Hajime Sawatari, Rain” at the Yuka Tsuruno Gallery in Koto Ward, Tokyo, runs until July 2; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free entry. Closed Sun. and Mon. yukatsuruno.com