Last Wednesday, in the early evening, a tremendous thunderstorm crashed through Tokyo. There were blackouts, the lightning started fires, even the rain-or-shine Yamanote Line was shut down for three hours. Meanwhile, Yumiko Okui was putting up her show at the Kenji Taki Gallery in Shinjuku.

“This always happens,” she later told the opening party guests, some of them damp and some of them soggy. “It seems that whenever I have an opening, there’s a big storm.”

I jokingly suggested that Okui might be some sort of rain goddess, who, when she isn’t down in a gallery, watches the world from a distance, from a place somewhere up in the clouds. After checking out Okui’s new paintings and chatting with the artist for a while, I realized I was almost right.

Okui, 36, paints landscape pictures. She has 18 new oil and acrylic on canvas works at the Kenji Taki. The pictures are mostly big flat fields of muted earth tones that appear at first glance to be devoid of any life. Here and there, dotting the expanses, are vague and tiny forms, often human figures, sometimes cars or other man-made objects. These are depicted with a minimum number of brush strokes.

We notice these small subjects because they are the only things in Okui’s pictures we can focus in on. However, because there are few details in these specklike subjects, our inspections pull back to a gaze, and we find ourselves outside again.

There are parallels with the work of successful Japanese painter Hiroshi Sugito, who paints tiny airplanes flying across otherwise featureless skies. Of course, with Okui, we are not looking up toward the heavens, but down toward the earth.

Although the perspective in Okui’s paintings places her well outside the scene she is painting, we come to see her subjects not as in an aerial photograph, or as hidden behind mist — but rather through an abstract sort of distance. I asked Okui if this might be described as a social distance, as she has been living and working in the German city of Cologne for some years now.

“I think it is something like that, I do find myself feeling quite far away from what I am painting; outside looking in. I do still feel like an outsider in Germany,” she said, “maybe a little like a gaijin.”

Dynamic synergy

Although many of her subjects are assumed to be in motion (skiers on a mountainside, cars cresting a hill) there is none of the dynamic synergy one finds between, for example, the tiny fishermen and the sea in Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa.” In Hokusai’s masterpiece, there is a tension created by the understanding that in an instant the sea will crash down on the fishermen’s boats. Okui’s pictures build a tranquillity with the idea that the scene will probably not have changed all that much even if we were to revisit it in a few hours. Looking at Hokusai’s tiny fishermen brings us closer to something; while in Okui’s pictures, the feeling we get is, again, one of distance.

In traditional Japanese culture, distance is regarded not as a stretch of emptiness, but as a sort of bridge between things, what is sometimes referred to as “negative space.” In today’s Tokyo, distance is an actual commodity — we pay more for restaurants where the tables are spaced further apart, we pay for the more spacious seating on a train’s Green Car, and so on. As such, I rather like the distance in Okui’s pictures. And I am not at all bothered by the lack of tension; rather I find the suggestion of movement communicated by the waiting passengers in her “Airport Lounge” paintings more agreeable than the implied movement of the cars in her “Highway” series.

Finally, although we generally like artists to get involved with the people they are painting, Okui effectively breaks this rule, compressing all the big bold dreams, personalities, shapes and sizes of the people in her paintings into nondescript compositional elements on the picture plane. Proof that sometimes it is nice to sit back and look at things from a distance.

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