Art

Japan's artistic rebels of the 1980s

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

On Kawara’s black-and-white stenciled date painting, “June 23, 1980” (1980), announces The National Museum of Art Osaka’s current exhibition’s decadal focus. Of the 65 artists featured, 25 were born in the baby boom of the 1930s and ’40s before World War II, followed by 31 in the ’50s. The final nine were born in the early ’60s, rounding out the chronological survey of artists defining “New Wave: Japanese Contemporary Art of the 1980s.”

While nothing so much as an epochal rupture occurred, 1980s’ artists were reactive to the lingering concerns of the ’70s — in that decade, oil painting and sculpture were mostly passe, while modernism appeared exhausted. Objects in environments to be encountered by spectators, such as those created by Mono-ha (School of Things) artists, were in vogue. So was conceptualism, like photography as a record of process in Hitoshi Nomura’s “A Spin in Curved Air” (1981); minimalism, as in Koji Sagawa’s reductive color-field rectangles; and abstraction, like the spotty “all-over” watercolors of Moon Seung-Keun.

Artists of the ’80s were more interested in personal memories, imaginary worlds and playful approaches, disfavoring artistic high seriousness. The new generations emergent were called “new humans” because their interests and aesthetic predilections were often incomprehensible to their elders, who quested for avant-gardism and originality. Painting returned, as did figuration, though rather than significant new movements or styles coalescing into particular progressive art narratives, there was a generalized dispersion of foci.

Graphic qualities, such as those formulated by the ’60s illustrator-turned-’80s-painter, Tadanori Yokoo, seen in “Four Days in London” (1982), were used as an exit route from formalist modernism. The ’60s subcultures of illustration, manga, design and anime became mainstream and integral to the fine arts, while works like the giant and riotously posed colored styrene foam figures of Manabu Nakanishi’s “The Rockin’ Band: The Guitar Man” (1985) show that the gaudy and garish were in.

Fusion, collage and hybridity were all the rage. These conceptual ingredients of international postmodernism were frequently employed in a preferred format of the ’80s: the installation. When ceramists adopted this sculptured display space approach, like in the fantastic fairy tale forms in Etsuko Tashima’s “Hip Garden-Flower” (1987), ceramics, renamed as “clay works,” boomed in contemporary art.

Other important trends included the emergence of young female artists, including Mika Yoshizawa, sometimes known condescendingly as the “Arts and Crafts girls” for their uses of diverse materials and approaches described as feminine. The modified self in constructed photography, first seen in early works like Japan-born Korean artist Kwak Duck-Jun’s “Reagan and Kwak” (1980), was also critically acclaimed. Yasumasa Morimura’s self-portrait as Vincent Van Gogh garnered significant international attention, as did the DIY aesthetic of the teetering constructions of Tadashi Kawamata, and the somber torso sculptures of Katsura Funakoshi.

The ’80s began a time when Japan could lay claim to a share of the international contemporary art market. Still, three painters deserving wider international recognition would be Naoki Suwa for his hybridizing of Japanese and Western painting traditions, Miran Fukuda’s collaged appropriations and the horrifying Mickey Mouse-themed canvases of Atsuko Ara.

“New Wave: Japanese Contemporary Art of the 1980s” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs until Jan. 20; ¥900. For more information, visit www.nmao.go.jp.

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