Forsaking Pop: A New Art Generation from Japanby Mark Bloch
WHITEBOX | JULY 16 – JULY 28, 2018
In the world of Japanese contemporary art, this millennium’s ascendancy of Murakami, Kusama, Yoshitomo Nara, manga, and anime—once fresh—is now replete with repetitive tropes that only pass for cutting edge contemporary art, running a risk of quoting from a lexicon that, despite a shiny, candy coated facade, could read as outdated and prosaic.
The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 pounded the souls of many young Japanese artists. It created an aesthetic void by stupefying passion for hatching new poetic concoctions, sometimes freezing creative inquiry altogether.
Into that interval step seven artists, brought together here by the curator Kyoko Sato, pledging to abandon the predominant influence of recent Japanese Pop Art in their work, presenting compositions created in alternative ways unabashedly unseasoned, divergent, self-determining and most importantly, unconnected to the established influences of both Pop and Japanese tradition.
Tokyo-based Jin Hashimoto, a trained metal-smith, pursues natural harmonies by burrowing meandering grooves into colored squares and constructing visual monuments out of the tiles, as colorful as anime but more subtle because of his distinctive technique. Painted chips of plywood layered with acrylic paint, then burrowed into—“drawing” with a digging motion—create individual tiles reminiscent of Chuck Close while the overall masterwork resembles an early Ray Johnson, Calm Center, (ca 1951) with black silent nothingness in the middle, here not zen but a reference to what is missing in the art world, this artist says.
Yusuke Wakata surprised curator Sato when he picked up trash on the streets of Manhattan and asked to spontaneously create with it a giant masterpiece of this island, outside the gallery on a chain link fence. Downstairs, a much smaller Tokyo map made out of delicately folded photographs of that metropolis similarly circumscribe an outline of those city limits. Both pieces merge place, artist, and process into an ongoing collaboration reminiscent of the French Situationists.
Naritaka Satoh’s paintings create anxiety in the viewer by interrupting carefully created portraiture with crudely applied, abstracted globs of paint that turn the subject—mostly idealized doll-faced women—into layers of under painting rendered insignificant. Without directly referencing it, something Richard Prince or Laurie Simmons-like permeates this enhanced objectification technique. Satoh assaults only eyes in Complete Woman (2018) while an onslaught of face and head pigment muscles Yellow Person (2018) toward the ambiguity hinted at in the title.
Ayaka Nakamura’s sensibility comes closest to the American post-college experience with impressive results. After graduating from Musashino Art University, she exhibited at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair, Anthology Film Archives, and the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center. In this work, Fly, (2018) Nakamura coaxes soothing, painterly breezes, “winds of life” onto thick paper, countering harsh angst disquiet, lonliness, and abandonment hopefully with what she calls monochromatic “wind” strokes. She is also a gifted animator.
Yutaka Okada, shown across Japan as well as Toronto, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, believes feeling is superior to seeing. In two white on white owl depictions, he honors Buddhist statuary tradition with dark jeweled eyes via a friend who provides “garden quartz.” Then using a syringe, raised white lines are laid onto a glossy surface creating a pearl finish. The collaboration with his colleague and the shifts in light inherent in the materials contribute to a spiritual transcendence of himself and his developing conception that art is a wave.
The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 had a particularly profound impact on Yumiko Shimada who received an MA in Science Policy and Planning. Shimada went to Tohoku where the stoic locals persevered, returning to rebuild after the resulting tsunami that leveled all man-made forms, leaving barren, desolate earth with historic layers submerged and out of sight. Two layered Genius Loci works, Layer and Waterfall (both 2018), are based on her on-site research revealing stories, space, traits and time specifically about Tohoku.
Born in 1987, Aki Sakamoto, is slightly older than the others yet new at the art game and Passport (2018) symbolizes his journey. First refusing to embrace any assigned identity, an international trip around Asia transformed his mind, elevating him literally into his work and embracing his ethnicity by taking license with the tired symbols on his state-issued passport. Sakamoto also confronts the Japanese flag in Circle (2018), transforming a flat symbol into a weathered emotional support animal with sandpaper, spray paint, and digital reproduction, but never brushes.
These artists are not a movement. They are friends who met on the Internet and through prizes awarded throughout Japan. They superimpose themselves onto the horizon of an existing 21st century high-art “Superflat” culture that is readily counterfeited, where all originality seems to be immediately and imperceptibly mimicked. To create something inimitable, these innovators have developed, nurtured, and maintained elaborate techniques to manifest compulsory new approaches accompanying essential new personal philosophies.
The Japanese curator Kyoko Sato, in New York, a booster for all new art, has a personal mission to open opportunities for young Japanese artists navigating a national cultural brand that must not, by definition, become hackneyed. Sato has succeeded in a search for fresh talent despite challenging times.
MARK BLOCH is a writer, public speaker and pan-media artist from Ohio living in Manhattan since 1982. His archive of Mail/Network/Communication Art is part of the Downtown Collection at the Fales Library of New York University.