Published October 9, 2003 in South Florida Sun-Sentinel
You know the work of Takashi Murakami. Even if you haven’t seen his installation currently at Rockefeller Center in New York, you saw the brightly colored handbags he designed for Louis Vuitton that were all the rage this past summer.
Murakami is an artist who is riding the crest of the Japanese “New Pop” wave, an art that derives its imagery from Japanese animation, comic books and popular culture. Two years ago, when this artistic phenomenon was in its infancy, PBICA Director Michael Rush thought it would make a good subject for an exhibition. It became, however, too big too fast. (Furthermore, the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach scheduled “My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation” this past April.)
The popular and trendy are not what the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art is about. Instead, to challenge both himself and his audiences, Rush and co-curator Dominique Nahas have organized “Japan: Rising.” The exhibition consists largely of paintings and sculptures by 14 contemporary Japanese artists, many of whom have never before shown in an American museum.
A criterion used by the curators was that these artists did not attend American art schools, but were trained at Japanese academies. Hence the emphasis seen in these works upon craft, upon the beautifully rendered and technically expert.
Masahiko Kuwahara’s paintings and drawings are an exception. Here, a childlike style is used to enhance the poignancy of images whose theme is biological mutation and disaster.
At first glance, the small acrylic and pen on paper paintings by Hisashi Tenmyouya may resemble classic Japanese prints. A second glance, however, reveals their contemporary subject matter. Tenmyouya employs the contour drawing, flattened space and patterned kimonos and cloth of his country’s printmaking tradition to illustrate the subject of gang activity, as found in the Notorious Street Group Series (2001-2002). In one, gang members with a cloisonne enameled boom box encircle a break-dancing figure.
Traditional Japanese techniques are used by Noriko Ambe, who carves stacks of paper, sometimes as many as 1,200 sheets, to form images suggesting three-dimensional topographical maps. In a perfect marriage of subject and technique, one of her pieces excavates the pages of a book titled Encyclopedia of the Geography of Japan. Craft is also paramount in the sculpture of Keisen Hama, which hangs suspended over the museum’s stairwell. Hama’s Kissho Dragon is pieced together with strips of bamboo that the artist whittled and carved.
While Hiroshi Kobayashi’s paintings can be related to Japanese New Pop in the artist’s representation of stuffed animals, elves and other images from popular culture, the subtlety of his renderings and the contemplative undertone of his subjects set his work apart. In deft compositions with raised shiny surfaces playing against flat matte areas, children’s toys engage in precarious activities, whether walking at the edge of a cliff or sexual solicitation.
Kenji Sugiyama’s Institute of Intimate Museums Series (2003) transforms rows of empty spaghetti boxes and round camembert cheese containers into miniature art galleries. Within the boxes, works of art are rhythmically spaced upon the walls and benches are provided for viewing. The works are charming, clever and by no means identifiably Japanese, partaking of a more universal concept and aesthetic.
Thus “Japan: Rising” offers viewers a wide range of techniques, expression, subjects and intention. The exhibition does not attempt to provide a definitive statement about the state of Japanese art today, but a cross-section of some of its marvelous manifestations and possibilities.