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Tokyo in New York

Striving for New Self-Definition

 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 must.
 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 one another.
 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.
 The mechanistic 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 constructs.
 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.
Ed McCormack
( June/July/August 2002 )