‘Imagination without skill gives us contemporary art,” quipped the playwright Tom Stoppard in an essay in 2000.
Skill arguably became irrelevant when modernism arrived in the 20th century, as rendering landscapes and bodies with myopic precision came to seem conservative. Even now, skill alone is unlikely to secure an artist a significant place in the art world. A timely redress to such a state is found in the unsurpassable technical abilities — and imagination — in Shinji Ogawa’s solo exhibition, “Interfering Worlds,” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka.
An initial draw is Ogawa’s consummate draughtsmanship in the series “Moire” (2005-6). What first appear to be photographs on closer inspection turn out to be drawings in pencil, and while the images all have a similar appearance, they are composed of structurally different elements. Based on the island town of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, the drawings offer subtle physical changes between the imagined composition of landscapes, oceans, church spires and tenements.
An obvious thread running throughout all Ogawa’s spurious images is his reuse of earlier imagery, whether from Old Masters or the photography of Eugene Atget. In the acrylic-on-postcard series “Perfect World” (1997-2006), Ogawa reproduces postcard images while making understated erasures or additions that are difficult to discern without scrutiny. Close inspection of one reveals a second Mount Fuji summit floating in the clouds, and in another, two reflections are cast in a river by a lone cyclist crossing a bridge. More startling additions, such as in “Pisa-2” (2002), has Ogawa inscribing in a twin tower of Pisa to accompany the well-known leaning one.
If he were merely copying what were originally photographs anyway, interest in Ogawa would likely subside, and soon. But he is also a kind of stylistic chameleon who reworks the oil-paint compositions of artists as various as Da Vinci (1452-1519), Francois Boucher (1703-70), or the Edo Period printmaker Suzuki Harunobu (1720-70). In the Harunobu diptych (which mimics the woodblock print medium in oils) “Lovers on Veranda” (2004), Ogawa goes as far as to sign Harunobu’s name.
These works in oil, collectively titled “Without You,” are Ogawa’s most striking in the show, not least because they referentially engage art-historical painting, but because Ogawa inspires quirky readings of canonical works. In the series, Ogawa erases one or another of the main figures or groupings of figures from a copied work, and then reverses the absence in another painting.
Two amusing examples should suffice. The first is the work “Annunciation” (2005) that copies the 15th-century Italian painter, Fra Angelico, who portrayed Angel Gabriel relaying the message that Mary will bear the Christ-child. In the 15th century, this meeting was codified into five successive psychological states as the Madonna receives the narrative, then is variously alarmed by the presence of the angel, reflective, inquiring, and so forth. Fra Angelico was fond of the humiliatio mode, in which he would portray Madonna being humbled by the sublime news. But Ogawa, separating the two figures out into two paintings that retain the same background, shows a bewildered Gabriel arriving only to find Mary “not home.” In the adjoining work, in the absence of the angel, it seems as if Mary is not so much clasping her stomach in humble acceptance of receiving such an honor, but rather she’s having a contraction alone, or suffering morning sickness.
In the works copying the “Last Supper” (2001), the general layout of which has become well known since “The Da Vinci Code,” the disciples are depicted without the centrally seated figure of Jesus, such that they look like two unruly groups of pub-crawlers about to set upon each other. In the pencil drawing that accompanies it, Christ is depicted alone at a table set for a banquet but wearing the dejected look of a spurned host, as if his dinner invitations have met with resounding rejection.
“Essential Painting,” concurrently showing at the museum, serves as a fine comparison with Ogawa’s work. “Essential Painting” ostensibly presents 13 painters of the Western avant-garde. Yet, as an exhibition, it is only passably redeemed by Cecily Brown’s seductive, smudged abstractions and Neo Rauch’s surrealist-inspired paintings. The majority of the works are exemplified by Alex Katz’s enormous portraits of simplified figures in garish colors, which provoke only tedium and seem destined to be the inoffensive wallpaper of bank lobbies. The skill of making visually — and cerebrally — engaging works is better left to Ogawa.