Viewed as mere pictures in a catalogue or newspaper, the works of Hiroji Noda may not impress. With their often vaguely organic shapes, they may even seem like pseudo naive fabric designs. But the blocks of often smudgy-looking color and the rough-edged simplistic shapes that you see in the print media hardly do this artist justice. On the basis of such reproductions, you might well wonder why he is considered one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists. But that’s why it’s sometimes important to see art in museums and galleries.
Viewed face-to-face at an exhibition such as the major retrospective of his work now underway at the National Art Center Tokyo, it is quite a different story. Under these conditions, his art becomes something much more epic, turbulent, and dynamic, because Noda is an artist who has wrestled vigorously and manfully with the material aspects of his art, and the signs of this struggle are only tangible to those who encounter the actual works.
What makes this battle between artist and material all the more vivid is the scope of the exhibition. It includes 140 works and surveys the last 30 years of his career, ignoring the years between his graduation from Tama Art University in 1976 and a seven-month residence in New York in 1981. Through the great wealth of work presented a very clear dynamic of the artist’s career emerges.
Perhaps the first thing that strikes you is the size of the canvases. Noda tends to paint big, and in recent years has worked on various series that are designed to be shown together, spanning meters of wall space at a time. Next, there is the 3-D aspect of his paintings, all of which are simply referred to by “work” numbers. In his early years, his dissatisfaction with the conventional flatness of painting resulted in some rather clunky assemblages of objects in shallow boxes.
Much more interesting than these are the paintings that he subsequently developed. Rather than cluttering up his canvases with bits of junk, he started to explore the very nature of the canvas itself, covering it completely in cotton or linen cloth to create a second layer that could then be utilized in innovative ways.
In “WORK 274” (1985) and “WORK 299” (1987), he inserted short lengths of wood under this second skin. Although rather crude, this method nevertheless respected the two-dimensionality of painting, influencing the distribution of the paint, but at the same time giving the work the energy and tactility of reliefs.
Noda soon found a more elegant way of achieving a similar effect. He folded and sewed the added surface into raised seams, creating potent lines that could also be used to strongly de-mark areas of color. A masterpiece of this type is “WORK 581” (1990).
Another method he used was to cut the second skin and fold it back, creating effects that could be compared to origami, and which gave a feeling of differential space that has affinities with conventional ideas of visual depth and perspective. This can be most clearly seen in a painting like “WORK 877” (1994), where the extra surface has been cut and folded back then painted black to suggest the solidity of mountains, while the exposed original surface of the canvas has been painted white to create a feeling of airiness or sky.
Part of the appeal of this work is that by looking at the folded fabric that makes up the mountains we can mentally reconstruct the second added surface and so get a vivid impression of how the artist’s mind interacted with the entire picture plane. This represents a highpoint of Noda’s art.
After this, especially following his “Of Distant Views” exhibition in 1995 at Galerie Humanite, Noda turned toward a more expressive direction. Instead of covering the whole canvas with a second skin, which had to be cut and folded in various ways, he shifted to the application of more free form cloth shapes in more lyrical designs.
This seems a lot less compelling, but while the fight with canvas may have ended, the struggle moved on to other factors. The latest work at the exhibition is “WORK 1766” (2011), a large painting on several panels that depicts what looks like a cluster of ghostly tombstones under a darkened sky. This was reportedly painted as a tribute to the victims of last year’s earthquake and tsunami.
Opposite this piece there is a video showing Noda working on it. What you notice is the restlessness with which he works. He paints large areas, lets them dry, then grinds the paint with an electric sander, hoovering up the resultant dust, before adding more paint, and repeating the process on other parts of the canvas. Each time new hints of color, patches of abrasion, or ghost images are left on the worn, buffed, and repainted surface. This creates a sense of potent character around otherwise simplistic shapes — and you need to be in front of the work to feel it.
“NODA Hiroji 1981-2011” at The National Art Center, Tokyo runs till April 2; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Tue. and March 20, open March 21. www.nact.jp/english/exhibitions/2011/noda