EGUCHI Ayane Unknown Garden, 2014 oil on canvas Courtesy Zane Bennett Contemporary Art

IMPACTS! Cute, Grotesque and Almost Perfect

In the 1990s, some seven years before Sofia Coppola released “Lost in Translation” — and we got to watch Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray transact disassociation in Tokyo — I visited Japan for nearly a month. The first experience sticks with me: being locked into the bus from the airport, by the driver, listening as a fellow passenger sneezed over and over again.

On foot in the Tokyo subway came my first confrontation with Japanese public behavior. Even if walking four abreast, they would never break lines.

I was struck too by the fact of fashion uniforms; in that year, black pea coats and platform shoes on women appearing startlingly tall. Everywhere I looked I sought evidence of avant-garde designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, whose complex garments in 1980s New York made my friend Christine a regular photo subject for Bill Cunningham. But Tokyo in 1997 read rather like a Magritte canvas. How to square such incredible design sensibility with the social conformity on the ground? The perfections of zen gardens came across entire, such as the moss garden where raking monks allowed nary a leaf to scud through. Meanwhile in cultural exports the country branded a contagious cuteness-grotesquerie that can still evince headlines like, “Hello Kitty is not a cat.”  (“There’s a lot we don’t know about Hello Kitty”!)

What does all this have to do with the exhibition titled “IMPACTS!,” a collaboration of Zane Bennett Contemporary Art and Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo? There’s a lot we don’t know about contemporary Japanese sensibility, and this spectacular Santa Fe show opens some winning visual windows. Especially interesting are young artists’ takes on the unease surrounding “nature” and the pulse of tradition that continues to compel material innovations.

Take the wonder woman of Ishihara Nanami’s canvas (“Yamaonna,” 2012), straddling the packed picture plane. Airplanes flying overhead spawn red-and-white amanita muscaria mushrooms which, when viewed from the spore side, become — what else? — the atomic mushroom cloud. The border at the foot of the painting has symbols from carp to tortoises to other “naturalistic,” even Shinto-type, figuration. In a statement, Ishihara said that she made this painting after the recent Fukushima earthquake in Japan. (The one that gave rise to the nuclear calamity.) Ishihara continued, “It was a sense of wanting to symbolize the threat posed by nature; somehow, when I realized its vast unknown power, the inexpressible sense of unease made me feel that somehow a ‘festival’ of this power was needed.”

Ishihara’s visual festival, drawing on Japanese mythology and lore, presents her mountain witch-goddess in white, her enormous feet like a super heroine’s, conducting wall-scaling, gravity-defying acts. Rays of sun — beaming light rays — suggest, of course, the iconography of the Japanese flag. By a western reading they could infer perhaps a new power of the feminine, but I doubt that’s it in Ishihara’s lexicon.  These rays, spoking through the extremely well-lit picture, convey rather some kind of time-altering experiment — is this a picture plane on which the past and the present coalesce? Back to our own associations, the potency of the queenly figure could be seen as companion in erotic circumference to some of the heroines of R. Crumb.

My husband, who had lived for three years in Japan, patiently reminded me that dislocation was normal for we foreigners — gaijin. That, even half a century hence in Japan, the uber-destructive upheavals of atomic bombings had been paced by profound societal aftershock at armistice when the voice of the emperor, his actual voice, had to speak on the radio as a condition of surrender.

“Nature” in postwar Japan expressed the existentialist, even nihilist, dramas of butoh dance. And of course the more recent “natural” devastations of quake and tidal wave reveal how, in Japan, shame rather than guilt persists as a cultural trope, a complex one for we westerners to understand as a factor of internalizing responsibility, for example, for corporate or governmental bad deeds.

Hands down my favorite of the works in this show — and eerily prophetic after the sudden eruption of Mt. Ontake, a Japanese volcano, had killed more than 40 people at the time of this writing — was Eguchi Ayane’s “Unknown Garden” (2014). The painting, a diptych, is an imaginative and formalist tour de force. She depicts mountain ranges in the color palette of Necco wafers, where anthropomorphic, if cartoonish, bears soak up the waters, chilling in lakes like weird survivalists beneath bleeding volcanoes. The color red is almost emblematic of a confection but, if so, a freeze in never-never land. Compositionally marvelous and emotionally affecting, the painting is a lonely, cool space. The artist has said it is possible this “miniature garden . . . represents the whole planet.” Her juxtaposing of “cuteness” with “fear and unrest” reinforces how what is on these young artists’ minds and creative plates is the proximity of disaster, like this volcanic eruption near Gifu.

I loved Ishii Toru’s use of silk techniques, dyeing and weaving, that put the “salary-man” of Japan as a form of traditional culture warrior with sword and blade. His transitioning of textile traditions into “on canvas” traditions is incredibly interesting. So too is the use of surface by Yamaguchi Ai,  who says she alludes to woodblock prints to inform work that has irregular shapes on cotton blanket and panel. The erotic figures have green, toy-like, oblong eye sets, but their garments have closely detailed pattern and color. Noda Hitomi describes having painted her watercolors of young women and deer in forest glades “under the inspiration of Stanislaw Lem’s novel ‘Solaris,’ in which the vast sea on the planet Solaris is itself a sentient, intelligent organism.”

The year that I visited Japan was a long time ago by today’s fast-moving standards. Pachinko parlors, zen gardens and glittering-world billboards all had something strangely in common with a faraway view out of Travis Bickle’s window in “Taxi Driver.” One couldn’t always understand that moment when the chunking sound of locks indicated that we gaijin were being held temporarily captive by a cab or bus driver (forms of contagion in check?). The country communicated as buoyant yet reticent, outlandish yet reserved. Meanwhile, the material-culture innovations seemed always so light, so near-to-perfect.

The dislocations that I felt then I felt again, happily, on encounter with “IMPACTS!,” in which every one of the works revealed technical mastery and a politico-aesthetic grappling with expressions of contemporary unease.

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