This ‘Garden of Painting’ needs to be perennial


I can imagine walking out of “Garden of Painting: Japanese Art of the ’00s” and feeling immensely satisfied.

I didn’t, but I can imagine it.

What needed to be different?

Well, the current temporary exhibition at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, shouldn’t have been a “temporary” exhibition. It should have been a permanent one. If the series of 200-or-so paintings by 28 artists on display had been part of the museum’s permanent collection, then I would have been satisfied. Very satisfied.

A museum’s permanent display of its collection needs only to provide a broad sample of a period, or a style, or a place — it need only be as comprehensive as its budget allows, and it can always grow.

Temporary exhibitions, however, need to have a theme. They need to tell us something through their combination and juxtaposition of works. In short, they need to be greater than the sum of their parts.

“Garden of Painting” has the vague focus of a collection: art of the decade, painting and, within that, figurative painting. It also has the quality of a collection — the work itself is stunning. But to suceed as a temporary exhibition, it needs to do more.

It’s the context that is missing. For example, almost no attempt is made to explain why figurative painting was the dominant form of painting during the decade. Or, for that matter, why painting should be spotlighted in a decade when digital art, photography and video art clearly played prominent roles.

Likewise, there is a lack of conclusions. What does this body of work tell us about the artists as a group? What does it tell us about the society, and the decade, that produced them?

In the absence of any such guidance, it is presumably up to the viewer to fill in the gaps. So, here goes.

I’m not sure it’s possible to argue that painting was the key medium of the ’00s (so much else was going on), but I do think you could argue that painting brings artists to a common starting line — a level playing field, if you like — and hence it provides the clearest forum in which to identify their concerns. In my opinion, it’s a valid way to examine the decade.

I will skip the question of whether or not figurative painting really was the dominant form of painting this decade — for brevity’s sake, and because I happen to think it is beyond doubt.

And so to the question of what do the figurative paintings gathered at “Garden of Painting” reveal about their artists?

For a painting to be figurative means it contains representations of things or people that, in virtue of their verisimilitude, are immediately recognizable to the viewer.

Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings, for example, are immediately identifiable as young girls. They are not abstract and they do not require recourse to any theory for their enjoyment or interpretation.

Conclusion: Japanese artists this decade have deliberately sought to create art that is accessible to a wide and nonspecialist audience.

Compare any of the works in “Garden of Painting” with a conceptual sculpture by someone like Shigeo Toya, or an abstract canvas by someone like Keiji Usami from the 1980s and 1990s — the Japanese art of the ’00s is not as “difficult” as its predecessors. A cynic might say it’s been dumbed down.

Reasons? Well, there are plenty. I think it has a lot to do with the influence of another “figurative” form of expression: manga. It was in the mid-1990s that artist Takashi Murakami began appropriating the clear outlines, neutral backgrounds, and overt appeal to cuteness that were manga’s hallmarks. He told the Japanese that this was their indigenous form of visual communication, and a great many of them believed him.

The boom in figurative painting overseas surely played a role as well. While this might have started in Europe in the 1990s, with Luc Tuymans and others, it has been encouraged this decade by the globalization of the art world. The influx of a large swath of artists and audiences for whom Western “isms” mean little or nothing has naturally led to a preference for art that is universally “readable.” Remember, figurative painting is now just as common in China and India as it is in Japan.

What else can we say about the figurative paintings in the “Garden of Painting”?

Two things immediately spring to mind. The first is that while the works include identifiable representations of real-world things, they are in no way realistic. The other is the frequency with which the real-world things depicted are human beings.

O JUN, Yoshitomo Nara, Takanobu Kobayashi and others depict people on largely neutral backgrounds — almost as though they are floating. While artists such as Kyoko Murase, Sakurako Hamaguchi and Aya Takano fill in their backgrounds, but with fantasylike tableaux.

The prevalence of faces means there is a prevalence of facial expressions. More often than not, it is either or both of these elements — foreground facial expression and background — that carry the bulk of the work’s message.

In Nara’s paintings the expressions tell the story: resistance, distance. In Murase’s it is the combination of human figures with fluid, dominating worlds: powerlessness and surrender.

Mika Kato’s characters display a sense of knowing detachment. Izumi Kato’s figures are so detached that they are best described as aliens.

It is easy to draw ominous conclusions from what adds up to a collection of slightly negative — or foreboding, perhaps — psychological portraits.

At the exhibition press conference, curator Atsuhiko Shima said he thinks this style of painting, and presumably its mood, can be traced back to 1995 — when the economic decline, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake and the sarin- gas attacks conspired to knock the wind out of the nation. I think he’s right. The logical question, then, is why not make an exhibition on the period 1995-2010, and really explore what it was all about?

The answer Shima gave was disappointing. Yes, he wanted to do that. No, he didn’t because — “for one thing” — one of the prominent figures of the period, Takashi Murakami, refused to allow his work to be included. (In the past, Murakami has told me that he doesn’t want his work included in any group shows in Japan.) The other reason Shima gave was that the other artists wanted to show new work, as opposed to work dating back to the late-1990s.

Shima’s response was to narrow his focus to the ’00s — a period where the absence of Murakami would seem less like a gaping omission. At the same time, though, he surrendered the chance to tell us his interpretation of the period dating back to 1995.

The problem is that without that interpretation, this body of art can’t really be called an exhibition. A broad sample of important work from the decade? Yes, but an exhibition, no. In other words, it is perfect for the museum’s collection, which (like most in this country) is under-stocked in recent art. I can guess how the institution would react to the suggestion that they buy the lot: “Impossible!” But, considering 60 percent of the exhibits are still owned by the artists, and almost half of the artists are below the age of 35, is it really?

“Garden of Painting” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs till April 4. For more information, visit