“Realism” can be a frustratingly indeterminate term. It can be used to refer to individual paintings, and it can be a conceptual placeholder that seemingly encapsulates the entire history of the Western Renaissance, and other, fine arts through to modernism.

The critical afterlives of realism, the “real” and “reality” in Japanese modernism, however, were considerable. What realism could mean from the late 1920s became increasingly varied and by the decade following World War II, realism had come to include most anything at all.

“Out of Real,” drawn from the collections of the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, attempts to seize upon some of the incredible diversity of artistic expression of those terms through 71 artists, both local and international. Split into two parts (and currently showing part two), the exhibition brings together a total of 121 works from the 18th century to the present. The perhaps unavoidable conclusions are that the realisms across those centuries as they were received or created in Japan were either myopic or without focus — or both.

Realism’s malleability is amply illustrated by the first section titled “Connect/Relate.” It combines early to mid-20th-century works, including that of Alexander Archipenko; 1970s black-and-white photography by Keiji Uematsu, in which he stands in geometrical poses within doorways and other architectural interior forms; Atsuko Tanaka’s abstract paintings of spotty nodes joined by gangly rivulets of paint; and a deceptively simple conceptual installation in stone, iron and glass by Lee Ufan.

Such unruly artistic spread may be confusing to those expecting a “realism is how humankind sees the world” model. That abstraction is included at all appears bizarre, except that it was being hailed from some quarters as the “new realism” in Japan as early as the late 1930s.

The bigger point in artistic and curatorial perspectives, however, is about establishing a structural framework of relations between objects and ideas for creating meaning and dialogue. In other words, the realism is in connecting and relating the disparate ways artists have viewed the world, or composed and suggested new ones or features of them, in artworks.

Other sections of the exhibition deal with realism’s varieties, including the photographic real as a set of conventions that can be manipulated. “ID400” (1998) by Tomoko Sawada, for example, uses head-and-shoulders portrait shots, the kind commonly used for job-applications, but for each of the 400 images, the artist dons a different disguise. The collage of small-scale photographs looks like an identikit Cold War exercise in spy craft.

In the “Change/Narrate” section, Jim Dine’s “Plant Becomes a Fan” (1973-74) narrativizes a pot plant with five sculptured phases in which it morphs into a freestanding electric fan. The plant’s leaves eventually become the fan’s blades in a transformation from the organic to the mechanical.

Meanwhile, in the “Reverse/Appear” section, Masunobu Yoshimura’s sculpture, “Buta.pig.lib” (1971), is a stuffed pig that, mid-way down the torso, turns into a rolled ham from which appetizing slices peel off.

The final section titled “Anticipate/Urge” deals with ideals and realities, abstraction and embodiment, the Japanesque and the Westernized. Here, Toshinobu Onosato’s “Three Circles” (1960) plays on the ideas of pre-WWII hard-edged Western abstraction. Seen from afar it looks exacting enough, though close inspection yields imperfect curves, wonky lines, and an overall geometric precision turned sketchy.

If the range of works on show can be said to encompass the real, then it can be worth questioning the “out of the real” of the exhibition title. Upon leaving such variance behind, there seems nowhere else to go.

“Out of Real” at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs until June 25; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥500. Closed Mon. www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.