Contemporary Japanese artists strive to create works uninfluenced by the West


Special To The Japan Times

“Real Japanesque: The Unique World of Japanese Contemporary Art” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, is in many ways a trying exhibition. Its concept claims that Japanese artists born after the 1970s are attempting to create something entirely new and that they are distancing themselves from imitating 20th-century Western art and its so-called, though unidentified, impasses.

These are bold claims. However, there is no further explanation to contextualize them, and the catalog will not be released until mid-August. Moreover, while the exhibition description wants these works to evince “enigmatic Japanese sensibility,” they appear contradictorily bound up in the Western art impasses that we are told they avoid. This includes the negotiation of abstraction and figuration that is the central concern of the show and another loose thread that follows a conceptual bent that recycles exceedingly familiar Western art ideas.

Kazuyuki Takezaki creates paintings that appear caught in the bind of whether to pursue representation or abstraction. Deciding on a middle ground, he does a bit of both in “Untitled” (2010). It is not mesmerizing stuff. Traversing the same territory, Mayuko Wada geometricizes “Horse” (2009), her “Painting of Cop Car”‘ (2010) becomes a daub of red paint, and “Yacht Study” (2011) is a triangle of fabric suspended between pieces of board. It is a barely passable representation and an innocuous abstraction.

Shimon Minamikawa paints pared-down portraits of men and women and brackets them with decorative polka dots and diagonal line abstractions such as in “Stripe, newscaster (pink), polka dots” (2008).

Katsuhisa Sato creates small-scale geometric abstractions such as “aimless” (2012). There is a whimsical take on color-field abstraction, and in works such as “a scene” (2009) Sato becomes deeply indebted to Western art — here trademark smears of Gerhard Richter are blatantly appropriated.

Teppei Soutome likewise abstracts representational elements. “Two doors Two Windows” (2010) presents two pink rectangles, two dark blue ones, a yellow wall and a green floor. The color is flat, and so falls the reception of such work. Rather than genuinely new work, this is the cobbling together of 1980s painters such as Alex Katz, Julian Opie and Sigmar Polke. It is merely a small-scale rehearsal of relatively recent European and American painting.

Where things get a little better is Satoshi Ohno’s work. “Maternal Prism” (2009) offers a huge matrix of undulating geometric forms in fluorescent colors. “Prophet — Primeval Forest As Maternal” (2009) depicts a naked, buxom girl wandering through a forest playing a flute — a bizarrely attractive geometric form floats at the bottom left of this huge-scale painting. Ohno’s self-portraits, however, with their empty eye sockets, gaping mouths and sprawling impasto streaks of hair are mostly weak takes on the Japanese tradition of ghost painting.

The second thread to the exhibition is a conceptual one. While Maoya Kishi’s installations in wood, fabric and lights titled “Goodman” are mostly vapid, Nobuaki Takekawa produces “Island of Nuclides” (2012) in which he creates an archaic map of Japan surrounded by a “sea of instability” in which sea monsters lurk and gods blow divine winds from the four corners of the painting. Hiroshima is pictured at the top along with Fukushima, and below, depicted as ship captains, are radiation hall-of-famers Wilhelm Rontgen, Henri Bequerel, Rolf Sievert and Louis Harold Gray. They, seemingly, chart the course for the country, but as a recent panel chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa emphasized, the Fukushima catastrophe was “Made in Japan.” A seemingly more allusive sculptural work involves a ship and hundreds of ceramic figures who pull the oars. “All aboard” is ostensibly the proposed message for accepting responsibility — or could it be they are abandoning their homeland?

Taro Izumi’s “Stomach” (2012) features five TV monitors showing different scenes of the artist defacing white geometric forms. He spills coffee onto them, scars them with cigarette burns, feeds them ramen and carries them around with him on the train. Essentially he anthropomorphizes minimalist forms and then he washes them in the shower or brushes them with toothpaste. This is a sardonic footnote to the far nobler “White Paintings” by Robert Rauschenberg, whose surfaces subtly register the light and shadows of the people present before them.

Childishness rears up in Minamikawa’s “ABC Book” (2010) where the artist attempts a conceptual play on the elementary reading material of infants. It begins conventionally with A for apple, though D is for Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture, E is for Egypt’s sphinx and pyramid and P is for a portrait of the American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. Q is not illustrated and in Minamikawa’s hodgepodge of references, the alphabet forgoes the culminating Z. Such work provokes only tedium and thoughts of the artist’s intellectual exhaustion — and it begs the question, Y?

“Real Japanesque: The Unique World of Japanese Contemporary Art” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, runs till Sept. 30; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.). ¥850. Closed Mon.