29 September 2006

Nihonga 6: Nakagami Kiyoshi

I trust my sense of vision. Not in the sense that it is never mistaken but because of its capacity to discover something entirely different from what is ordinarily seen. To put it more accurately, I trust it because of its capacity for misunderstanding and because of its ability to discover space. I trust its capacity for making people awake of light, faraway time and infinity, in a simple flat space without depth. I have a deep faith in representation that transcends the individual and attains universality.”
Nakagami Kiyoshi

More than three weeks after attending the Nihonga exhibition, work of Nakagami Kiyoshi (中上清) remains an enigma to me. All of the works on display were untitled and seemed to depict the sun obscured by hazy smog and dark clouds. Sometimes titles can be the key to unlocking meaning in a given painting, but sometimes (as in the case of Matsui Fuyuko) artists use the title to impose their intentions too heavily upon the spectator. These paintings remind me of afternoons spent looking up at the clouds and creating imaginary worlds on their billowing peaks and valleys. Yet, unlike such clouds on a summer’s day, Nakagami’s clouds have a melancholy about them. To truly appreciate Nakagami’s work, I would need to spend more time with the paintings. It would be great to have one of the paintings in a room that has natural light so that one could observe how the painting changes with the subtle variations in the quality of light throughout the day.

© cmmhotes 2006

23 September 2006

Nihonga 5: Kosemura Mami

Of all the Nihonga artists represented at the Yokohama exhibition, I found the work of Kosemura Mami (小瀬村真美) the most fascinating. I have not seen very many film installations before, so perhaps I will sound naïve when I describe how spellbinding I found Kosemura’s moving paintings. Each moving painting was inspired by a traditional painting. I haven’t had a chance to muddle my way through the interview with the artist to see if it describes her techniques, but it looked as though she filmed both real objects and painting objects, sometimes in real time, sometimes it looked as though the images had been composed frame by frame. Each moving painting is a DVD of varying length (5 to 23 minutes) being played on endless repeat.

The first moving painting one encounters is one of the series Flowering Plants of the Four Seasons (shown above). I believe that the first one represented spring (I’m not sure where summer was lurking, but I never found it). It consisted of a large canvas onto which two side-by-side overlapping DVD images were being projected together. The back side of the canvas had the autumn version of the same scene. From a distance, it looks like an illuminated painting of a pond scene complete with a realistic soundtrack of pond sounds (breeze, water, insects). The movements within the scene are subtle: the breeze gently ruffling leaves and causing reads to bob up and down. It is only when one looks closely at the scene can one see the digital artefacts of the medium. The winter scene was even more sparing with a pair of bamboo trees and a flowering plant set against a concrete wall as snow softly falls and coats the plants.

It was truly magical to watch these scenes evolve in subtle ways and it has left me pondering the relationship between a still painting and spectator and how it too evolves over time. Here is what the artist herself has to say about her own thought processes:

What interested me most about the folding screen paintings or wall paintings that were the basis for Flowering Plants of the Four Seasons was the fact that there is no boundary between painting a real object while looking at it and copying an image that has already been painted. Both types of sketching are related to the act of observing everyday reality.

A flower changes slightly and is given a new form as it moves lightly from one picture to another.

I feel a similar sensation in the gradual changes in vision that occur when editing my woks. How much can the form of the flower vary and still be identified with the real object? At what point should it be seen as an artificial creation?

Even if the flower takes on a strange form removed from its everyday condition through a gradual process of editing, our awareness is quickly brought back to everyday reality when it begins to move before our eyes

The two paintings could be enjoyed while sitting on a raised tatami mat the artist had provided for her spectators (as in the photo at the very top -- but it is from an earlier exhibitionby the same artist). In Priming Water, instead of projecting onto a blank screen was replaced by an old wooden Japanese sliding door. I’m not sure if it is what is known as a shoji door or if it has another name, as only the top half of the door had the square pattern with the rice paper. The bottom half of the door was a long rectangle of rice paper onto which an image of pond water was projected from behind the screen. In the pond water, one could see carp surfacing. Their movements were very realistic, as were the sound effects. The image, however looked painted, and I suspect that Kosemura may have painted the scene frame by frame in order to animate it.

The other painting that could be viewed from the tatami was inspired by Hashiguchi Goyo’s woodblock print Woman with Kimono Undergarment (1920). This moving painting, titled simply Woman in the Mirror, was either projected from behind the wall or involves a modified flat screen tv. The image was projected onto a tall Japanese mirror with a wooden frame that attached to a very low make-up cabinet. It had clearly been designed so a Japanese woman could do her hair and make-up while seated on the floor and then could stand and see her full profile in the mirror. The scene was of a traditional Japanese room with tatami, shot at a canted angle that recreated what one would see in a mirror reflection of one’s room. For this moving painting, Kosemura had dressed a model in a kimono with the same colour (red and white) as in the Hashiguchi painting. The woman was not looking at herself directly in the mirror but the spectator would catch fleeting glimpses of her as she passed partially into the frame and out again. We never see her face but do see her adjust her kimono. The image was slightly jerky and gave me the impression that it might have been done using the technique of pixilation, an innovation made famous by Norman McLaren in his animation Neigbours (NFB, 1952) though it had already been invented back in the early days of filmmaking. This technique involves actors being filmed frame-by-frame instead of in real time, turning the actor into a kind of stop-motion puppet.

Kosemura’s last moving painting, Comb, uses the same technique. Inspired by Hashiguchi’s woodblock print Woman Combing her Hair (1920). Again, Kosemura uses a model dressed in a similarly coloured kimono (this time a blue pattern) and again the model’s face is obscured as we watch her slowly brushing her hair. Again, this moving image has a painterly quality to it. These last two paintings have had me thinking about the male artist as voyeur, a term more commonly used when speaking about photography than traditional Japanese art. Kosemura’s work changed the way I looked at the Hashiguchi paintings and I wondered about his relationship to these two women he has captured in such an intimate and personal space.

I spent the most time in this room, as Kosemura has reignited my interest in the relationship between art, time, and space. The beautifully rendered moving paintings capture the poetry found in the minutiae of daily life. As in an Ozu film, even the briefest of gestures denotes volumes of meaning, if only we take the time to look and appreciate its worth.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

08 September 2006

Nihonga 4: Nakamura Kengo

I loved the sense of humour expressed by Nakamura Kengo (中村ケンゴ) in his Nihonga artwork. His work clearly exhibits the influence of graphic design and cartoons, but he uses the traditional Nihonga technique of mineral pigment on Japanese paper. One broad wall was covered in more than 60 colourful rectangles .

I didn’t realize what I was looking at until I read the title, “Composition Tokyo”, and I had to stifle my laughter so as not to disturb the other spectators. Kengo has playfully taken floor-plans of Tokyo apartment buildings and turned them into graphic art. When one hunts for an apartment in Tokyo, one is shown page after page of these floor-plans according to the customer’s desired specifications (we have a 2LDK which means two bedrooms plus a Living-Dining-Kitchen room). Once one has narrowed down a selection, the estate agent then makes a photocopy of a map of the area and plots all the locations and a driving route with a highlighter pen before driving his (usually a man) clients to each of the apartments. We did this on a boiling hot day in early August 2005 with a small baby in tow. None of the apartments was occupied so they were all stifling hot due to lack of air conditioning. Kengo’s installation “Composition Tokyo” vividly brought back that screwball comedy of a day for me. This piece playfully demonstrates the reality of the shoebox lifestyle of the Tokyo area where we are all living in essentially the same kind of rectangle, it only varies by size and location toilet and kitchen.

Kengo’s trademark is filling spaces with cartoon-inspired images. My favourite was “Speech Balloons on the Hinomaru”, shown at the top of this entry. It was playfully placed above the iconic painting “Sacred Mount Fuji” by Yokoyama Taikan (横山大観) as if the Hinomaru had been spewed from the volcano. In a humorous way, Kengo is making a statement about freedom of expression in Japan. On the surface the Hinomaru (literally this means “the rising sun” but the term usually refers to the Japanese flag in the same way that Union Jack refers to the British flag), like the Canadian flag, is just a graphically simple emblem representing a country. Unlike the red maple leaf (as far as I’m aware) which is usually only used at sporting events or for distinguishing oneself abroad as a non-American, the Hinomaru is often appropriated by right-wing nationalists and is seen as a symbol of oppression and aggression in many parts of Asia.
By filling the Hinomaru with speech balloons, Kengo is reminding us that, stereotypes to the contrary, Japan is not unified in thought and action. The people of Japan are not a monolith, but a nation of people of diverse backgrounds and opinions. Although the group ethos is very strong in Japan, most individuals do have their own views, though with the dominance of certain political groups in Japan, it is not always easy for moderates and liberals to have their views heard. The good news is that at least there is enough artistic freedom in Japan for the Hinomaru to be used in such a thought-provoking manner as in this exhibition.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

Nihonga 3: Shiriagari Kotobuki

Shiriagari Kotobuki’s (しりあがり寿) work was refreshingly uplifting after the gloominess of Matsui. One of the older artists in the exhibition, Shiriagari is a manga illustrator by profession and he clearly finds his job stifling. In explaining his installation, he wrote:

“I just want to paint a big picture with no end to it. That’s how I feel after ding nothing but drawing cartoons day after day. Cartoons have a beginning and an end. Day after day, I draw picures that are neatly contained in frames. I must stay within the frame and the page, and I must meet the deadline. . . Some day I want to be free of it all. . . I want to paint following my hand rather than my head or heart. I want to transfer my eyes, my heart, and my head into my hand and just paint.”

So what did he do? He covered the walls of a room in white sheets and just went nuts. The above sketch is of his general plan for the installation. He couldn’t get away from speech bubbles on some of the people he drew but there certainly was no discernable beginning or end to My Kingdom is this Big! It must have been good therapy for Shiriagari, who incidentally was honoured with the Prize for Excellency in Manga at the Tezuka Osamu Culture Awards in 2001 for Yaji and Jita in Deep

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

Nihonga 2: Matsui Fuyuko

The next room displayed the work of Matsui Fuyuko (松井冬子), who was the only one of the artists to be dressed in kimono (click here to read about how she cultivates her public image) in her publicity materials. Matsui’s work presents a dark, nightmarish world, beautifully rendered muted greys, crimson reds, ghostly whites, and pitch black. Her favoured theme is madness in its many forms. I was particularly impressed by a painting of two black roosters with impossibly long tails streaming down beneath them like ribbons. The painting, entitled Deliberately Caused Insufficiency or Excess, was mounted on a beautiful black silk hanging scroll and hung between painted scrolls that Matsui admired.

Interestingly, the scrolls that she chose were quite minimalist in contrast with her more elaborate paintings such as the one shown above: Becoming Friends With All the Children in the World (2002). On first glance this girl is standing among the harmless wisteria, but if you look more closely you will see that the wisteria is covered in insects. **Shiver**—some very creepy stuff. Although Matsui has a lot of talent and I did find myself drawn to some aspects of her work I didn’t like the titles of her art very much. They were pretentiously long and seemed designed more to frustrate than to clarify the art for the spectator.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

07 September 2006

Nihonga Painting 1: Fujii Rai

Nihonga Painting: Six Provocative Artists

Today I will treat you to a review of an art exhibition instead of my usual film review. One of the six artists featured at the Nihonga exhibit at the Yokohama Museum of Art (July 15 - September 20, 2006) is doing art using film technology, but I enjoyed the whole exhibition so much that I wanted to write about all of the artists.

Nihonga 日本画 literally means Japanese-style paintings. It is usually used to describe art by modern (Meiji and later) artists who have been influenced by the traditional Chinese and Japanese styles of Yamato-e, kara-e, and kanga. The artists featured in this exhibition have all been influenced by Nihonga art of the past century and a quarter but come from a wide range of backgrounds including graphic design, manga, oil painting, media art, and acrylic. Some of the art work on display had already been completed by the artists in recent years and others were commissioned specifically for the exhibition. Each artist also chose a piece or pieces of artwork that inspired them to be displayed along with their work. I really enjoyed seeing the connections between the recent art and their Nihonga predecessors.

Entering the exhibition, the first artist one encounters is also the youngest of the group. Fujii Rai (藤井雷) is only 25 years old but shows a lot of promise. Picture Letters are a series of small drawings and paintings all of identical size. They were made over a series of four years and sent home to the artist’s family to let them know that he was all right as he traveled through Amami Oshima, Okinawa, and Tapei. Each Picture Letter took up where the previous one left off. It was impossible to count how many Picture Letters there were, but it would be safe to say that Fujii draws something every day. As I walked along I felt like I was watching a movie camera slowly panning left through someone’s subconscious. The images moved in and out of black and white and colour, they moved from realism to surrealism and back again. The range of traditions and styles that Fujii dabbled in through this journey was impressive. Fujii has been inspired by the tradition of scroll painting in Japan and Imamura Shiko’s Study for Scroll of the Tropics was also on display. Fujii had also done a scroll in this style called Scene of Penang.

I really enjoyed Fujii's work and would love to have a book of all his Picture Letters so that I could spend more time reflecting on them. I am very excited about what this artist may produce in the future. The images at the top are examples of the Picture Letters. You can really see the Nihonga influence in the style of the fish and waves.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006