What makes the exhibition in two stages of Yoshio Kitayama’s works at the MEM gallery in Osaka all the more surprising is that they are paintings — not the sculpture/installations for which the artist is conventionally known.

In fact, Kitayama’s most recent works were shown from Jan. 23 to Feb. 20, and his paintings from the late 1980s will take over from Feb. 27 to March 27. Both exhibitions are strikingly dissimilar, with the most recent work being remarkably sculptural, refined and myopic in detail while the late ’80s work can only be called the antithesis of this.

For the purpose of explaining how this came about, it is helpful to go back to the the late ’70s. Born in 1948, Kitayama emerged in his 20s in the ’70s Mono-ha (School of Things) era that was flush with ideas of nonart and conceptual concerns.

His interest in drawing concentrated on the two-dimensional surface, over which he soon came to glue bamboo shoots and branches that acted as a kind of tactile line work or substitute drawing. Then, that early tactility became ever more three-dimensional — though the genesis for each work lay firmly in the departure from two dimensions.

Even as the branches broke free from the picture surface and out into the gallery space, for instance, the artist continued to consider these sculptural installations as kaiga (pictures).

By the ’90s, Kitayama was making massive constructions such as “To Whom I Cannot Name Yet (1992-93),” an amorphous structure of lashed-together bamboo rods covered in leather that filled an entire gallery space.

On those early ’80s sculptures in particular were scribbles in bright child-pleasing colors, a connection that led to Kitayama’s late-’80s paintings, around 10 of which will be exhibited from Feb. 27.

The childlike qualities of scribbled line work and lucid coloring began with the artist teaching his own children to draw. He witnessed in their work freely selected motifs without care for convention and free from theoretical implications. Kitayama followed, selecting simple subject matters such as trees and people drawn very small in ink and acrylic. The paintings have little concern with detail, and leave most of the painting surface untouched, such that the smudgy figuration is almost engulfed by the remaining empty surface.

“Endless” (1986), for example depicts a small tree isolated in the middle of a vast space such that the void is more prominent than what has been painted — or the figuration merely punctuates empty space.

Consequently, what was figuration in other works literally becomes a kind of punctuation in “A Poem was Composed” from 1986. Here, in the middle of the paper, a small and isolated black ink dot, rimmed in a fiery red tinge, is all there is — the rest of the surface is left blank.

In the late ’90s, Kitayama immersed himself in ink painting, his work developing a penchant for minute renderings of microcosmic and macrocosmic celestial entities in a series titled “Universe”; the “Icon” series depicting figures drawn from clay dolls the artist made in advance and then based his paintings on; and his “The Dead Create History” series dealing with violence and massacres throughout human history.

All these, representing Kitayama’s latest artistic developments, were to be seen in the January/February showing at MEM. While ostensibly separate series, they draw upon one another. For example, 2009’s “All Things Are in a State of Flux” is a swirling sprawl of dots and cloudy celestial bodies that glow and fade, fitting within the “Universe” series.

Kitayama connects his imagery to Buddhist mandalas, structures representing both a cosmos and the representation of an unconscious self. He also sees in these works an endless chain of life and death that began with the Big Bang which he situates himself within . . . as a body in space.

A much earlier work, “Mother Has Just Given Birth to a Baby” from 1998, features the same cosmic imagery as above, but the title is suggestive of the recently exhibited “Icon” series work, 2009’s “Good News.”

The subject here is a little baby in a seated position that sucks its thumb while all the while giving birth to a massive blubbery adult figure that appears to rush toward the viewer with clenched fists. The image is striking both for its unusual subject and the extraordinary three-dimensional qualities of the modulated ink.

“The Dead Has Made History” (2010) rejoins the birth theme. Here corpses are so strewn and interwoven that sometimes the individual parts are not visually retrievable. The work is a kind of freakish mass grave of tortured bodies represented in the most discerning and disconcerting detail.

Kitayama’s oeuvre evidences an extraordinary diversity of approach. Most viewers will likely be drawn to the often freakish recent work, while the late-’80s paintings, stark and even visually diminished products, prove more difficult to warm to. It is, however, the necessary prehistory to his contemporary work, and a direction Kitayama was ultimately to turn on its head.

MEM Osaka, Arai Bldg. 4F-16, 2-1-1, Imabashi, Chuoku, Osaka 541-0042 is a 1-min. walk from Exit 2 of Kitahama Station on the Sakai-suji Subway Line. Open 11 a.m.- 6 p.m., closed Sundays, Mondays and public holidays. For more details, visit mem-inc.jp/

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