New YorkGalerie Richard
February 13 – March 29, 2014
Aside from prayer and its secular variants, few experiences can shift consciousness as powerfully as a transformative aesthetic encounter. The quiet, all-white work of Norio Imai achieves this with such deceptively simple means that the intensification of awareness it occasions is all the more profound. In Perspective in White, the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, a recent series is presented alongside a range of historical works from Imai’s early membership in the Gutai Art Association, a formative influence whose insistence on novelty remains for him an imperative. While the works encompass a range of media, all bear the artist’s signature mark: a variously embodied white “skin” that drapes over, stretches around, or otherwise occludes a mysterious substrate. Throughout, the physical tensions produced by the stretched materials are the agents of transformation, eliciting perceptual and psychic tensions rich in cognitive consequence.
The recent works are a series of small-scale relief paintings in which various objects are encapsulated behind taut cloth painted matte white. While some of the veiled forms are more easily identifiable than others—a pair of binoculars here, a sardine tin there—one gathers fairly quickly that all are everyday objects. But what begins as a guessing game soon gives way to a more contemplative experience. Even when the obscured object is plainly identifiable (in fact, all are plastic molds), the elimination of color, texture, and surface detail lends each a strangeness that borders on the uncanny. As attention shifts toward the beauty of the stretched fabric—its rise and fall as it wraps around the contours of the form and the shadows cast by the latter—a sense of intensified meaning takes hold. A coat hanger is no longer just a coat hanger; it is both itself and something more. Just as a freshly fallen blanket of snow can turn one’s familiar world into a place of newfound wonder, these works awaken the mind by reducing an object to its essence.
Also part of this newer series is the show’s only two-sided relief painting, one of the strongest works on view. Suspended by wire from the gallery’s ceiling, “Shadow of Memory 107—Mandolin” (2013) is also the only piece to make titular reference to the object it enshrines. Seen from one side, the topography of the swollen cloth clearly delineates the recognizable features of the instrument. On the other side, the stretched cloth continues but becomes a resolutely ambiguous form. Devoid of any identifiable features, the mandolin’s backside reads as a mysterious, compelling abstraction. Sharpen your eyes, it seems to be admonishing us; there is mystery immanent in everything ordinary. The series title is also significant: What is a shadow of a memory but something twice removed from the daylight realm of everyday consciousness?
While the more recent works function as self-contained wholes, the older pieces engage in a dynamic relationship with their surroundings. Many of them are irregularly shaped panels, and here the forms buried beneath the shrouds of white are wholly ambiguous. In one series, unidentifiable linear and cylindrical objects are pinned down by ovular nail heads that surround the latter in variously shaped enclosures or form rows that bisect the picture plane. In another series, large spherical protrusions with ocular openings invite the viewer to peer into the voids, each one a cavern of shadows. The placement of each piece is so carefully orchestrated with regard to the whole that the negative space between the works becomes itself a kind of fabric stretching this way and that. Immersed in this fabric, one feels these objects to be living, breathing beings.
Although “On the Table” (2014) now exists only in memory and on record, the artist’s live performance on opening night most fully embodies the power of Imai’s oeuvre. While a small screen installed in the gallery loops the video documentation of the piece, it cannot convey the tension between the live presence of the performers that night and the projected simulcast of their actions that was part of the drama. A sensuous dance in which an elegant female performer became the encapsulated object of Imai’s signature gesture, the performance had all the formal beauty and evocative power of the other work. But with the recorded image projected alongside the direct, unmediated experience, the piece also achieved a powerful dissonance, laying bare the philosophical gem at the core of Imai’s work. With the tension between the two components, one was more acutely aware than ever of the value of a genuine encounter: the felt, material presence of the here and now.
Imai’s work beckons us to lay claim to a present moment too often eclipsed by technological mediation and mundane concerns. By pointing our attention to that which is right before us, the artist deals a swift Zen master’s blow to an awareness dulled by daily life. In an era of hyper-mediation and wanton distraction, a reminder of the plenitude that is right here, right now could hardly be more urgent. With his work, Imai takes the Gutai injunction to “make it new” to its philosophical terminus: ultimately, there is only one thing that is genuinely new, and to find it we needn’t look far.