Imagine if you will a female Japanese artist who dresses as a hamster and scurries round amid wood chips and scraps of torn paper, wide-eyed, nibbling on croissant-size, cookie-dough “sunflower seeds.” Yes, in this city with its insatiable sweet tooth for art, it does sound like yet another serving of cotton-candy cuteness.

But I took a chance on Sako Kojima’s current exhibition, because her new work is executed in the comfort food of artistic media, good old-fashioned paint on canvas. I was also overdue for a visit to northeast Shinjuku’s Kagurazaka, whose tiny streets host scores of independent printing factories and a quartet of very independent galleries, the Kodama, Takahashi, Sasahara and the Yamamoto Gendai — where Kojima’s “The Gloaming,” opened last Saturday night.

A bit about Kagurazaka — while it’s good to see Tokyo’s leading contemporary art spaces in Roppongi and Kiyosumi-Shirakawa becoming more “world-class,” I can’t help thinking that as their stock has risen internationally, their domestic operations have become more predictable. If one imagines these elite galleries as a miniaturized version of New York City’s West Chelsea, then the Kagurazaka spots, which opened a couple of years back, are a mini-Williamsburg. In a word, funky.

There are 24 works in Kojima’s show — several mixed-media, three-dimensional pieces, all of them rather humorous, and 20 or so acrylic-on-canvas or paper paintings. They are largely characterized by broad brush strokes, thick paint and dark, forceful coloring. For the most part, they depict squirrels, hamsters and birds posed in bleak, sad forests. The only painting done with detailed brushwork, and so rendered more naturalistically, is of a pair of deer’s heads mounted on a wall.

“Humans do bad things to animals,and I want to say sorry,” says Kojima. “Aside from the deer, who are dead, the animals I paint are pets who live in cages but maybe are not happy. Maybe they would want to go out into the forest.”

Kojima has a pet hamster, Ku, but she hastens to add that Ku is not the model for her paintings — she herself is. “These are all self-portraits because I think contemporary people who live in cities — in small apartments that are like cages are very much like pets,” she says.

Kojima’s earlier work includes not only the hamster performances — which she has staged in France — but also three-dimensional hamsters and squirrels done in a style that suggests Yoshitomo Nara — but either elongated or morphed into unnatural shapes. They are usually engaged in some sort of unnatural, humorous activity: A hamster sits at a stainless steel table, regarding a human ear; another is stretched round in an exaggerated oval, licking at its own backside. In this show, the resin sculpture “Narziss and Goldmund” is a couple of hamsters with long, female, human legs. The protagonist of the Hermann Hesse novel from which the piece takes its name wandered around in the forest, looking for meaning in life and finding it in the eyes of a woman giving birth.

Kojima has described her work as an exploration of “the forest inside every woman” where reason and passion coalesce. These paintings have a similar duality in the apparent interchangeability of hamsters that are domesticated and squirrels that are feral. But if all animals are pets, and people are also pets, who is the master? “Maybe God,” replies Kojima.

Multilayered metaphors aside, these paintings work purely for their painterly quality. Kojima, who has a master’s from the City College of Arts in her hometown of Kyoto, knows how to use paint not simply to fill the spaces between lines but for its own intrinsic expressive characteristics. Given the flat and sterile style which has dominated Japan over the last decade, it’s more than refreshing to see someone doing representational work in this thick, primal manner.

Considering that she is only 30 years of age, Kojima’s successful experimentations with performance, sculpture and painting mark her as one of the more ambitious and exciting Japanese artists around. I hope gallery owner Yuko Yamamoto will forgive me, because she didn’t want me to specify prices, but another noteworthy thing about Kojima’s exhibition, and the Kagurazaka galleries in general, is the surprising affordability of these works.

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