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The Tokyo Art Scene. Art Fair Tokyo and 101 Tokyo

by D. Dominick Lombardi

To get a taste of the indigenous art galleries of Tokyo and a sense of place, D. Dominick Lombardi covers two spring art fairs: Art Fair Tokyo and 101 Tokyo

My first one-person show outside of the U.S. was at Gallery Milieu in Tokyo this year. This opportunity to show and visit Japan afforded me the chance to see first hand, the art scene there. To understand Japanese art, one must look at the culture, which is steeped in a tradition that hinges on a balance with nature, while an obsession with cuteness blankets the rest of contemporary art. Looking from the outside, one might find these factors to be less than cutting edge. However, I found this environment, the culture and the visual arts to be profoundly interesting. My goal was to get a taste of the indigenous art galleries, and to get a sense of place by visiting the two spring art fairs: Art Fair Tokyo and 101 Tokyo.

First the fairs. The maze-like floor plan of 101 Tokyo: Contemporary Art Fair 2008 is your classic second fair spin off in a public school building. In many ways, 101 is better than Art Fair Tokyo. 101 has far more countries represented - which for me, gives a much better platform to view and understand the Japanese esthetics offered. I love what Masaki Kishimoto did with his one-person installation in Zenshi Gallery's booth (Tokyo). Here, the artist offers some wildly fresh assemblages that turns Japanese culture upside down and spinning out of control. Afronova Gallery (Johannesburg) features a wonderful show of color photo-portraits by Nontsikelelo Veleko. Each one of the subjects, a young man dressed to express his inner vibe, is set against a compelling background (wall). A nice blend of attitude and intimacy. The large digital art prints by AES+F over at Art Statements Gallery (Hong Kong) is like a Jacques-Louis David painting with its over staged drama - the beautiful unblemished bodies - and the relatively placid facial expressions. Galerie Alexandra Saheb (Berlin) has a stunning one-person display of etched light boxes by Heiko Blankenstein. After coating acrylic glass with black printer's ink, Blankenstein raises detail with black markers and precisely scratched in lines. The marker lines are quite faint through the black ground, but the etched lines, which are close to the obsessiveness of a technical engraving, really fires up these imaginative fantasies of grandeur. The self-destructing table by Jo Coupe at Work Place Gallery (New Castle upon Tyne) is a very powerful statement about our times. On each of the four table legs are two or three small high-speed motors powering tiny circular saw blades that bounce and slowly chew through the wood. At the supposed energy source of each power wire is a small metal plate inserted into a piece of slowly rotting fruit (which I was told is only for show). The noise of the incessant cutting - the destruction of the table, and the suggested, green energy source is like an argument between capitalists and conservationists - a heated discussion that can only end badly. There are a few additional galleries taking up spaces upstairs, in this converted school building. The work of Hiro Kurata in Point Of View Co., Ltd is the most memorable with its quirky, cartoony, Hairy Who type style of addressing the combative cultural differences between eras.

Art Fair Tokyo offers a much more regimented - big art fair floor plan. Which is fine. However, I had some trouble understanding what this fair was trying to be. A good portion of the fair is dedicated to the decorative arts - craft - antiquities - which are all wonderful in their own right. But, with so few galleries from outside Japan, I think it would have been best to have two separate art fairs. One with the modern and contemporary galleries, and another with the rest. Now I do understand that this is Japan, and that there is far less of a distinction between craft - commercial and fine art. But there is a globally established art fair circuit and the minimum this art fair should do is bring in more galleries from outside Japan. As I mentioned earlier, this gives a much better platform for international visitors to judge and understand the esthetics and culture here.

Despite all of its problems, Art Fair Tokyo had some top-flight artists. Works by Tomoko Konoke at Mizuma Art Gallery (Tokyo) drew large crowds. Here, the artist dazzled visitors with one large, tethered, white, flying insect-based form that nearly filled the booth. At either end of the walled-in space are books and framed drawings of Surreal-fantastical pencil drawings that are as powerful as the sculpture. The mixed media works by Takuya Osawa at Gallery Hirooka Bijutsu (Tokyo) have a very refined quality, with a very curious edge. Working from photographs - the artist layers silhouettes - light - organic forms and architectural detail with great finesse and confidence. Using all that and more is the team of Thukra & Tagra at the Nature Morte/Bose Pacia Booth (New York/New Delhi). While Osawa uses earth tones and finesse - Thukra & Tagra dazzle the eye and mind with bold juxtapositions and powerful color combinations that define an alternative time and space. Tomoo Gokita's wildly distorted - black & white representations in paint at Taka Ishii Gallery (Tokyo) are somewhere between the abstraction of Ives Tanguy and the voluminous portrayals of Fernand Léger. A personal favorite is Shinichiro Kitaura who has his paintings at Wada Fine Arts (Tokyo). Kitaura is masterful at activating monochromatic fields by adding awkwardly painted and designed representations. The resulting voids and the deadpan approach - and the quirkiness of the objects represented is totally new and inspired. The portrayals by graffiti artist Tomi-E at Galerie Taimei (Tokyo) reveals great skills with spray paint, while Hiroo Amano's Surreal sculptures at Tsubaki Modern Gallery (Tokyo) would delight and amaze any science fiction fan. The angry, naive paintings by Rokkaku Ayako at the Gallery Beniya booth (Tokyo) are fun and frivolous, and the simple and playful paintings by Hiroshi Pkano at the Ginza Yanagi Gallery booth (Tokyo) are quietly pleasing as both Okano and Ayako represent the infatuation with cuteness in this culture.

My first one-person show outside of the U.S. was at Gallery Milieu in Tokyo this year. This opportunity to show and visit Japan afforded me the chance to see first hand, the art scene there. To understand Japanese art, one must look at the culture, which is steeped in a tradition that hinges on a balance with nature, while an obsession with cuteness blankets the rest of contemporary art. Looking from the outside, one might find these factors to be less than cutting edge. However, I found this environment, the culture and the visual arts to be profoundly interesting. My goal was to get a taste of the indigenous art galleries, and to get a sense of place by visiting the two spring art fairs: Art Fair Tokyo and 101 Tokyo.

First the fairs. The maze-like floor plan of 101 Tokyo: Contemporary Art Fair 2008 is your classic second fair spin off in a public school building. In many ways, 101 is better than Art Fair Tokyo. 101 has far more countries represented - which for me, gives a much better platform to view and understand the Japanese esthetics offered. I love what Masaki Kishimoto did with his one-person installation in Zenshi Gallery's booth (Tokyo). Here, the artist offers some wildly fresh assemblages that turns Japanese culture upside down and spinning out of control. Afronova Gallery (Johannesburg) features a wonderful show of color photo-portraits by Nontsikelelo Veleko. Each one of the subjects, a young man dressed to express his inner vibe, is set against a compelling background (wall). A nice blend of attitude and intimacy. The large digital art prints by AES+F over at Art Statements Gallery (Hong Kong) is like a Jacques-Louis David painting with its over staged drama - the beautiful unblemished bodies - and the relatively placid facial expressions. Galerie Alexandra Saheb (Berlin) has a stunning one-person display of etched light boxes by Heiko Blankenstein. After coating acrylic glass with black printer's ink, Blankenstein raises detail with black markers and precisely scratched in lines. The marker lines are quite faint through the black ground, but the etched lines, which are close to the obsessiveness of a technical engraving, really fires up these imaginative fantasies of grandeur. The self-destructing table by Jo Coupe at Work Place Gallery (New Castle upon Tyne) is a very powerful statement about our times. On each of the four table legs are two or three small high-speed motors powering tiny circular saw blades that bounce and slowly chew through the wood. At the supposed energy source of each power wire is a small metal plate inserted into a piece of slowly rotting fruit (which I was told is only for show). The noise of the incessant cutting - the destruction of the table, and the suggested, green energy source is like an argument between capitalists and conservationists - a heated discussion that can only end badly. There are a few additional galleries taking up spaces upstairs, in this converted school building. The work of Hiro Kurata in Point Of View Co., Ltd is the most memorable with its quirky, cartoony, Hairy Who type style of addressing the combative cultural differences between eras.

Art Fair Tokyo offers a much more regimented - big art fair floor plan. Which is fine. However, I had some trouble understanding what this fair was trying to be. A good portion of the fair is dedicated to the decorative arts - craft - antiquities - which are all wonderful in their own right. But, with so few galleries from outside Japan, I think it would have been best to have two separate art fairs. One with the modern and contemporary galleries, and another with the rest. Now I do understand that this is Japan, and that there is far less of a distinction between craft - commercial and fine art. But there is a globally established art fair circuit and the minimum this art fair should do is bring in more galleries from outside Japan. As I mentioned earlier, this gives a much better platform for international visitors to judge and understand the esthetics and culture here.

Despite all of its problems, Art Fair Tokyo had some top-flight artists. Works by Tomoko Konoke at Mizuma Art Gallery (Tokyo) drew large crowds. Here, the artist dazzled visitors with one large, tethered, white, flying insect-based form that nearly filled the booth. At either end of the walled-in space are books and framed drawings of Surreal-fantastical pencil drawings that are as powerful as the sculpture. The mixed media works by Takuya Osawa at Gallery Hirooka Bijutsu (Tokyo) have a very refined quality, with a very curious edge. Working from photographs - the artist layers silhouettes - light - organic forms and architectural detail with great finesse and confidence. Using all that and more is the team of Thukra & Tagra at the Nature Morte/Bose Pacia Booth (New York/New Delhi). While Osawa uses earth tones and finesse - Thukra & Tagra dazzle the eye and mind with bold juxtapositions and powerful color combinations that define an alternative time and space. Tomoo Gokita's wildly distorted - black & white representations in paint at Taka Ishii Gallery (Tokyo) are somewhere between the abstraction of Ives Tanguy and the voluminous portrayals of Fernand Léger. A personal favorite is Shinichiro Kitaura who has his paintings at Wada Fine Arts (Tokyo). Kitaura is masterful at activating monochromatic fields by adding awkwardly painted and designed representations. The resulting voids and the deadpan approach - and the quirkiness of the objects represented is totally new and inspired. The portrayals by graffiti artist Tomi-E at Galerie Taimei (Tokyo) reveals great skills with spray paint, while Hiroo Amano's Surreal sculptures at Tsubaki Modern Gallery (Tokyo) would delight and amaze any science fiction fan. The angry, naive paintings by Rokkaku Ayako at the Gallery Beniya booth (Tokyo) are fun and frivolous, and the simple and playful paintings by Hiroshi Pkano at the Ginza Yanagi Gallery booth (Tokyo) are quietly pleasing as both Okano and Ayako represent the infatuation with cuteness in this culture.

Galleries

In the Nihonbashi section of Tokyo is Rieko Fujinami's one-person show at Shinobazu Gallery. Fujinami paints faint faces on plaster and clear film - an accomplished representational artist who makes art that is deeply rooted in the spiritual realm. The souls she represents are perpetual transients en route through timeworn surfaces. Gallery Tsubaki offers two artists who happen to be husband and wife. Mayuka Yamamoto focuses her attention on children who dress up in fuzzy bedtime get-ups such as penguins and teddy bears. Yet the expressions on the faces of her young subjects are distant and removed making me think these children were feeling the anxieties of the animals they represent in this globally warming world. Ayumi Ikeda also finds his muse in nature, but in his case, it's the landscape, and its volatility, whether it's synchronized explosions or geyser like plumes, you get a sense here of defiance and reverence. Nishimura Gallery features the works of Yokoo Tadanori in an exhibition titled "Happiness and Sorrow for Many Years and Months". In the painting "The Memory Theater" (2007) Tandanori paints a kitschy narrative that shows Giorgio DeChirico driving a doctor car as he passes a multitude of references that all have a dark side. Here, the artist balances a skillfully composed work with a loose painting technique that reminds me of hand-painted West African movie posters, only much more complex psychologically.

In the Ginza section of Tokyo, at Gallery Natsuka, are the works of Tada Yumiko - a fine young abstract painter who finds inspiration in her natural surroundings. Here, lightly drawn color pencil lines and mostly monochromatic swirls of paint inhabit white fields producing voids that are as active as the marks themselves. Two contrasting shows that show the scope of Japanese painting today were nearby. Takashi Akiyama's paintings at Hikari Gallery epitomize the reverence for nature and finely crafted objects that you see here in Japan. In his glowing landscapes and near geometric still lifes Akiyama offers a near perfect approach to balance through composition and color. Masashi Ito's paintings at Gallery Saihodo go the other way - as he employs a street art approach to color and composition. Here, it's about frenzied showmanship - fiery forms - and glossy glazes that, if you are not familiar with this total disregard for convention - can make you a bit woozy.

One gallery in the Roppongi section, Shonandai MY Gallery, features two artists who have strong roots in classic Modernism. Kumi Sakurai simplifies and reconstructs simple, everyday shapes, separating them from any practical reality. Sakuri's craft is quite fine and masterful as he easily moves from wood, to metal, to stone and to glass. Painter Masakazu Takahashi reminds me a lot of Terry Winters, as they both have one foot in the molecular world, and another in the realm of architecture. Here, Takahashi focuses more on organics and connectivity, which sometimes yields this sort of atonal style.

In the Kanda section is Yukiko Koide Presents. "Kyoko Okubo: The Rumor of the Bees" is a stellar show of small fanciful figures made of pre-colored washi paper over delicate wire frames. The gallery director, Yukiko Koide, tells me the artist, who is around 30 years old, is struggling with the cultural pressures of motherhood. This, perhaps, leads to her fascination or infatuation with small fairy-like children and animals (some with babies of their own). Fear of adulthood, independence, all comes into play here in this little world of an expanded reality.


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