The issues of contemporary Japanese
art are too often misinterpreted in the west, due as much to the well-meaning
but skewed views of European "neo-Orientalists" like Roland
Barthes as to our own native egotism.
Because of their well known fascination
with American popular culture and their remarkable ability to create
their own version of it, the Japanese have been unjustly accused of being
imitative, when it would be more accurate to say that the Japanese are
a people with an acute awareness of context as a determining factor for
success in any aesthetic endeavor.
While we flatter ourselves into
thinking that Japanese artist are simply attempting to replicate aspects
of our culture, what they are actually doing is assimilating some of
its most blatant characteristics out of a by now ingrained habit of perpetual
modernization that began in 1868, when the Meiji Restoration ended 250
years of self-imposed isolation.
At the same time, it would be inaccurate
to divide Japanese critics and art historians tend to do, since the traditional
arts of brush painting and calligraphy have continued to evolve along
a path of parallel innovation continuing to the present, and to feed
into the mainstream, as any enduring cultural achievement inevitably
Thus, while it may be true that
the Japanese practice the art of appropriation better than any other
nation on earth, it is equally apparent that even at their most culturally
acquisitive they invariably transform whatever they borrow into something
uniquely Japanese. Paradoxically, this often means more "American" that
American, as seen in those Japanese rock bands who play louder, wear
flashier fashions, and cavort more frenetically onstage than the majority
of their western peers.
Indeed, this intensification of
effect, as it manifests in contemporary visual art, can be seen among
some of the participants in the group exhibition "Japan Art Alliance," at
Westwood Gallery, 578 Broadway, in Soho.
The show is being presented by Westwood
Projects (a division of Westwood Gallery established to focus on international
artists, which is currently organizing several museum exhibitions nationwide)
in conjunction with ALC, Associate Liberal Creators, an arts organization,
based in Tokyo, whose purpose is to offer exhibition opportunities to
Japanese artists, particularly in New York.
To most emerging Japanese artists,
with few opportunities to exhibit in their own densely populated country,
New York City is the art world ---- the place where they dream of making
their reputations and their fortunes. From among thousands of eager submissions
by artists of varied backgrounds and career levels, ALC selected the
twenty artists featured in this exhibition to exemplify the wide diversity
of styles and tendencies that comprise contemporary art in Japan.
In the spirit of the occasion, Westwood
Projects did things a little differently with this exhibition. While
most of its collaborative ventures involve the gallery's own stable of
artists, for this show it turned over its impressive 5,000 foot exhibition
space to the artists selected by ALC in a gesture of cross-cultural solidarity
that other established New York City venues would do well to emulate.
Perhaps the one artist in the exhibition
who best exemplifies that "intensification of effect" alluded
to earlier is Tetsugo Nakamura, whose paintings drag post-Pop imagery
---- kicking and screaming, as it were ---- into the embattled area of
gestural abstraction. The dominant figure in one of Nakamura's compositions
is the cartoon character Tony the Tiger from the Kellogg's Corn Flakes
box, seen here striding in his goofy, splay-footed way across a cubistically
fractured field of slashing strokes and predominantly red color areas.
Also swept up in the painterly fray are fragments of the Kellogg's logo,
the heads of Elise the Cow and her husband Elmer, an elegant Japanese
written character, and even a prominent barcode ---- the latter apparently
a wry comment on the commodification of art.
When American Pop artists emulated
the slick, uninflected surfaces of advertising and commercial design
with hard-edged precision, they were reacting against what they saw as
the retrograde "romantic" tendencies of Abstract Expressionism.
Nakamura, however, combines elements of the two opposing schools as only
an artist can who views both with nostalgic affection from afar, without
the Oedipal antagonisms which spur art movements that immediately succeed
Other works by Nakamura incorporate
the cute, cuddly cartoon characters that permeate Japanese culture and
are often as beloved by adults as by children. Like the pubescent Lolitas
in school uniforms and sweat socks featured in fetish magazines for overworked "salary
men," these cute characters, harking back to the carefree joys of
childhood, offer such solace from the daily grind that they are often
used as corporate logos in Japan. Thus, these seemingly innocuous symbols
are fraught with complex social meanings in the work of artists such
as Tetsugo Nakamura.
view of the universe advanced by Issac Newton comes to mind in viewing
the "paper sculptures" of another gifted artist in the exhibition,
Tokyo native Hiroji Chiba, apparently influenced by origami
but much more complex, personal, and contemporary.
In some of Chiba's pieces autumn
leaves are convincingly wrought in trompe l'oeil detail. Here and there,
however, portions of these leaves peel away to reveal an understructure
of computer innards or other mechanical elements, as if to symbolize
Newton's theory that the world is like a massive clock and all of its
components, down to the tiniest elements of nature, are likewise mechanical
In a work that Chiba calls "Love
and Peace" the central element is a beautiful white wing, which
is seen disembodied and set against a collage of newspaper clippings
as if attempting to transcend the foregone conclusion that not only
the physical world but all of the activities and aspirations of humankind
are mechanically predetermined.
Seen thus, the piece is particularly poignant,
with the white wing trailing loose feathers as it apparently loses
speed above an ethereal stratosphere of rainbow hues, its mechanisms
protruding at one end like the broken bones of the robotic bird or
angel from which it has been violently wrenched.
By contrast, Takuya Terasawa offers a more harmonic view of
universal energies in a series of meticulous acrylic paintings in which
all the elements of nature are unified by swirling organic rhythms and
areas of vibrant color as intricately interwoven as tantric or psychedelic
designs. In one painting, an entire bestiary of stylized animals, suggesting
the symbols of the Chinese calendar, enlivens the branches of a massive
tree, surging upward at a vertiginous angle against a sky blazing with
other intense patterns and hues.
In another work, Terasawa depicts a blazing sun, swooping birds,
and schools of fish tossed upon rhythmic waves in equally visionary terms,
creating a composition that ambitiously attempts to capture the mystical
forces of nature in a manner that can only be compared to ---- without
seeming in the least bit derivative of ---- the dynamic watercolors of
the great American eccentric Charles Burchfield.
While their views of nature are interestingly
at odds, Hiroji Chiba and Takuya Terasawa are singular talents,
wholly unbeholden to any style or tendency presently in vogue. Both
seem genuinely oblivious to art historical precedents, as they pursue
their personal visions with an intrepidness that would be refreshing
in any national context.
On the other hand, one of the most intriguingly perplexing artists
in the show is Junichi Aoki, whose abstract paintings of swarming circular
shapes are weirdly allusive, suggesting rioting olives or eyeballs, among
other bizarre possibilities.
Aoki's compositions tease one's perceptions in a similar manner
to the "Bad Painting" and "New Image" movements that
sprang up in the East Village in the late 1970s. Aoki transcends "technique" and "talent",
as though convinced that such notions are irrelevant, passé ----
relics of a kinder, gentler age whose quaint standards no longer apply.
While ostensibly abstract, Aoki's forms appear to be derived
form cartoons; however, they are not rendered in the precise manner of "Superflat" the
Japanese Pop and Hip Hop-inflected movement presently garnering the most
attention in the U.S. art press and mass media. Rather, Aoki's paintings
come across like purposely sloppy parodies of Neo-Expressionism, with
their acidic colors splashed and dripped, and their impetuous brushstrokes
suggesting but never quite depicting a host of latent monstrosities.
Like Donald Baechler and Christopher Wool, Junichi Aoki is one
of those deliberately crude, patently abrasive artists whose work manages
to be oddly compelling despite its adamant refusal to ingratiate itself
to the viewer. Indeed, that kind of chutzpah signifies an integrity that
makes one curious to see what Aoki will do next.
Far from being imitative, most of the artists in this show challenge
western stereotypes of what Japanese art is supposed to be all about.
Yes, some are obviously enamored of American popular culture; yet, there
are others ---- particularly, the woodblock print artist Yukiko Shimo,
the ink painter Yoichi Wakui, and the ceramicist Takeshi Tanaka ----
who successfully update traditional Japanese mediums, making them new
and vital by virtue of their thoroughly contemporary sensibilities.
The dominant western perception of Japanese art gets bogged
down in stereotypes because, as Alexandra Munroe of the Japan Society
in New York City once put it, paraphrasing the Japanese writer and intellectual
Karatani Kojin, "it ignores the indigenous forces and internal logic
that have shaped the modern Japanese experience."
Perhaps this excitingly eclectic and illuminating exhibition
of mostly emerging artists striving for new, more accurate self-definition
will help to put at least some of those stereotypes to rest.