For the longest time, my inner dictionary of prosaic Japanese simply tagged the word kanashii with “sad.” But no more. In classical Japanese, I have discovered, kanashii has the dual meaning of both sorrow and tenderness, and can be written with the Chinese characters for either sadness or love.
It is the lost nuances of the word that Yuumi Domoto, 43, alludes to with her most recent series of oil paintings, titled “Kanashi.” More than two dozen of the canvases, which set simple black line drawings against colorful abstract backgrounds, are now showing at three different Tokyo art spaces.
The prestigious Gallery Koyanagi on the Ginza has 21 small- to medium-size “Kanashi” works, and their sister gallery, the Koyanagi Viewing Room in Shinkawa, in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, has five larger paintings from the same series. Finally, the Paris-born, Tokyo-based Domoto is showing three more “Kanashi” paintings as part of her participation in the annual Tsubaki-kai show at Shiseido Gallery. (Also at the Tsubaki-kai 2004 are Yasue Kodama, Toeko Tatsuno, Mitsuko Miwa, Naoaki Yamamoto, Noe Aoki, Rury Iwata and Wakiro Sumi.)
The last time I saw Domoto’s work, in April 2002, it was a number of large paintings executed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The paintings presented an imagined view from inside the stricken towers, with prominent patterns suggesting the lattice of the buildings’ shell and rows of what looked like candles or eerily floating human forms. I was impressed with the power of the work, with the sadness and the hope it conveyed.
“After Sept. 11, all the active work I was doing became meaningless,” explained the personable Domoto at her recent Koyanagi vernissage. “I’d been trying to be an intellectual, but all that flew away and I just painted, and the paintings became a prayer.”
Last year, Domoto was preparing work to send to the 11th Asian Art Biennale in Bangladesh when, again, tragic news arrived — and this time it was personal. After undergoing tests as part of a routine medical checkup, Domoto was told she had cancer.
“In the work I was doing for Bangladesh I was searching for a way to present myself as a Japanese artist in Bangladesh, which is supposed to be one of the world’s poorest countries,” said Domoto. “But when I got sick, the issues I was dealing with became direct, they became my own. I was so afraid of death, and again I felt a prayer. The level of creation in this series became very similar to what I experienced while doing the Sept. 11 series.”
Thankfully, a subsequent biopsy found no malignancy, and Domoto remains cancer-free today. When she finished the work for Bangladesh, it formed the foundation for the “Kanashi” series now showing in Tokyo.
Reflecting the duality in the series title, the “Kanashi” pictures are remarkable for their synergy. There are generally two very different compositional elements on a single canvas — a black line drawing in the foreground, resembling wilting flowers, and a big wash of rich and diffuse colors in the background.
The relationships between these two elements map a “before” and a “beyond” — the lines in the foreground seem silhouetted, as if the light source had moved behind them; the colors in the background seem to reflect the same light source, with hot spots suggestive of the sort of lens flare one sees when pointing a camera toward the sun. Somewhere in between the before and the beyond, in a place Domoto does not paint, but rather frames, is the meaning. This, I think, is that life is not hovering, it is fleeting.
Considering their relative uniformity of style, Domoto’s paintings can speak with a wide variety of voices and communicate a similarly wide variety of atmospheres — some are silent and sad, others seem more animated and hopeful. The work is also resonating well with collectors — priced from 650,000 yen to 1.4 million yen, five of the eight paintings featured in the Koyanagi’s front room sold less than an hour into the opening.
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