The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

Edo Pop: The Impact of Japanese Prints

On View
Japan Society Gallery
March 9 – June 9, 2013
New York

Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints is the Japan Society Gallery’s remix of an exhibition of historic ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, interspersed with new selections of 10 contemporary artists “whose styles, techniques, or sensibilities create thought provoking dialogues with the works from the Edo period (1615–1868),” according to Japan Society Gallery Director Miwako Tezuka.

Teraoka, Masami, “AIDS Series/Geisha in Bath,” 2008. Woodblock print on paper, 19 Ã?½ x 13 Ã?½”. Courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, and (Art) Amalgamated, New York.

The ukiyo-e print is itself a genre, and can be translated as a “picture of the floating world,” originating during a period in which the pursuit of luxury and leisure, art and entertainment, typically reserved for a small, elite class, became accessible to more of the population. As culture shifted due to the development of urban centers (like Edo, or modern Tokyo), the rise of the merchant class, new roads and interstate tourism, and the implementation of strict isolationist national policies, art seemed to slide into a sort of heady exploration of sensual beauty in all its forms.

The most readily apparent form of this luxurious, hedonic glamour could well be the feminine form—bijinga, or “beautiful person pictures,” are a central theme of ukiyo-e—and the exhibition begins here. Delicate prints marked by achingly subtle line work, some with softly glimmering mica backgrounds, depict glamorous doll-like figures, each more coy than the last, somehow almost pointedly ignoring the viewer, engaged in their own “floating worlds.” In Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Fickle Type,” from the series Ten Types in the Physiognomic Study of Women (1792–3), the subject seems too engrossed in staring off and absentmindedly playing with her luxuriant robe to notice her own exposed breast. Paul Binnie’s “Koi (Carp)” (1994) subverts this concept with a heavily tattooed, perfectly-muscled male subject gazing directly at the viewer, posed casually, seeming more comfortable with his role as radiant (perhaps erotic) but inert object. Masami Teraoka makes subversive use of the gaze as well in “McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan/Geisha and Tattooed Woman” (1975). Here a hamburger and wrapper-clutching geisha stares in apparent disgust at a ramen-slurping white woman clad mostly in cherry blossom tattoos and crumpled fabric. The white woman’s tongue is grotesquely long, and her loose hair—a contrast to the geisha’s immaculate coif—dips into her overflowing bowl of noodles, her eyes cast almost dismissively toward her horrified onlooker.

Kabuki theater flourished during the Edo period, allowing artists not only the opportunity to create dynamic portraits of famous Kabuki actors portraying their celebrated roles —like head shots in character—but also, since all kabuki actors were male, to depict women as portrayed by men in character. This is a rather curious take on the bijinga, since it is a portrait (the performance) within a portrait (the print itself), and showing a man as a beautiful woman seems an unnecessary step in the process of rendering a beautiful woman, if that is, in fact, the ultimate goal of the artist.

Well, hello, Hokusai!

Perhaps more lovely and confusing than a sensual portrait of a man-as-beautiful-woman is the effect created by the fragile lines and colors of Hokusai’s flowers. “Black-Naped Oriole and China Rose”(1833) is so soft and quiet, so unfathomably delicate, that it feels pointlessly redundant and inadequate to discuss the nuances of such a celebrated artist any more. Hokusai and (van Gogh’s favorite) Utagawa Hiroshige’s unlikely contemporary, Tomokazu Matsuyama, transforms the theme of airy flowers and hushed landscapes into something vivid and altogether dreamlike. In “My Dog Can’t Walk” (2012) Matzu mirrors Hokusai’s uncanny ability to depict wind as a tangible force, here throwing about hyper-real, color-saturated fabrics that either blow about or anchor his starry-eyed, blank characters. The viewer is able to enter the scene, stare up at Mount Fuji, and inject his or her own meaning and narrative upon these featureless faces, unlike in Kabuki prints in which the makeup, position, and facial expressions of the subjects clue us into the narrative.

In a darker room down the hall the viewer is met by a series of Hokusai’s demons, skeletons, and ghosts, all mournful eyes, fragile, bony fingers, mysterious smoke, and creeping ivy. Perhaps death is not the end of beauty when it is rendered with such incredible care? These grim specters of decay are joined by an image from Masami Teraoka’s AIDS series. In “Geisha in A Bath”(2008), our delicate, porcelain-skinned, red-lipped geisha frantically tears at a condom wrapper with her tiny teeth, as more condoms rain into her steaming bubble bath from the sky, a kanji monologue inscribed in sweeping calligraphy behind her fumbling frame. Indeed, how does such an icon of delicate femininity grapple with AIDS when sex becomes death? Damn those slippery condom wrappers.

Teraoka’s modern problems spill into realms less corporeal and more environmental in his New Views of Mount Fuji” series (hello Hokusai!)“La Brea Tar Pits and Zen Garden” (1974). Teraoka depicts himself as the caretaker, broom in hand, of a Zen garden that stretches toward the yawning tar pit, into which an oblivious mammoth is poised to step. Naturally, Teraoka’s “view” is joined with two of the most abstract, human-free examples of Hokusai’s Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji (1831–34). Beyond all this is the grandfather, that iconic Edo seascape found on bathroom posters and canvas tote bags worldwide, “Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa,” in which nature asserts its dominance over humanity as embodied by three boats filled with pathetic, skeletal specimens. This concept is reversed curiously in Ishii Toru’s “24 Hour Lights 1and2,” (2012), in which glimmering neon signage, stacked atop itself like stuttering waves trailed by hallucinatory tracers, overwhelms the quiet black background. Here, the devouring wave is man-made light. The landscapes in Narahashi Asako’s series, “half awake and half asleep in the water,” produced by arbitrarily snapping her camera while floating in the sea, yield surprisingly coherent (if half-submerged) visions of the grand archipelago. “Kawaguchiko” (2003) is all towering Mount Fuji and a mouthful of glittering, sun-dappled wave sea spray flecking the lens, cheerfully drowning the viewer—hello, Hokusai! There is a small cutout in the wall to the previous room, ostensibly through which the viewer could compare and contrast Hokusai’s famous wave to its contemporaries, though I used that portal to demand “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” be my last view of Mount Fuji. No single image encapsulates the Edo period, and perhaps even the time-worn theme of nature as beautiful and terrifying, more effectively for me than this old standard. Goodbye, Hokusai!


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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