When we think of Japanese printmakers, the Edo Period's large woodblock prints of courtesans, actors, samurai, and landscapes with the ever-present Mount Fuji immediately come to mind. The current exhibit at Memorial Art Gallery illustrates the diversity of work being created by contemporary Japanese artists, including wood-block prints, photographs, and some sculptural works that severely stretch the parameters of what may be considered a "print."
Featuring 13 working artists from all over Japan, "Redefining the Multiple" is organized by University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "We found out about this show in sort of a roundabout way," says MAG Director of Exhibitions Marie Via, who was referred to the exhibit by one of the artists featured in MAG's 2009 show, "Leaded." MAG has never shown contemporary Japanese art, says Via. And since these artists are not tremendously established outside of their home areas, the staff looked forward to introducing the gallery's audience to the work of artists they might not otherwise have a chance to encounter.
Many works in this visually stunning exhibit may be considered a "print" only in that the means of production involves the ability to create reproductions. Some straddle the boundary between printmaking and sculpture, which has already been blurred by the use of 3D printers in creating art.
Nobuaki Onishi's trompe l'oeil sculptures are arguably the show's least print-like pieces, but as works of cast glass, could be part of an edition of multiples. "Shovel" is a shimmering work of transparent glass with a handle painted to resemble rusted metal. The same is true for "Kugi (Nail)," which nonchalantly protrudes from the wall of a display case. "Happa (Leaf)" is every bit as fragile as a rotting leaf, part ghostly frosted glass, and partly painted to look decayed.
Koichi Kiyono's "Cultivation II" is a large installation of etchings on cotton, wool, and felt, which has been stretched over discs that are situated on a low platform and hung on the wall. This garden of colorful spiral patterning brings to mind unfathomable worlds, the vibrant stillness of galaxies viewed at a safe distance from their violent cosmic dance. Some of the plates contain a central dip, and some of those bear a printed paper egg form, perhaps representing swells of ejected gas, star nurseries ready to form a new series of worlds.
"Silence on the Move: Reflection," by Kouseki Ono, is truly mesmerizing: a carpet of shifting color on a low, central platform. The work is created from a sea of panels repeatedly silkscreened on thousands of isolated spaces, the hundreds of layers creating striped towers of ink. As viewers walk around the work, different strata of colors become visible or hidden, and the colors shift hypnotically, transitioning smoothly like velvet under a caress. Hunker down for a closer look at the wee spires and you'll spy the individual layers.
Marie Yoshiki also uses this analog method of 3D printing with screens, creating detailed objects such as a coin, a chocolate bar, and a panel of lace. The latter work is printed directly onto glass, with a subtle curve to the panel of "lace" appearing to result from the natural tension from so many knots.
Shoji Miyamoto works in the traditional method of printing from wood blocks, but depicting oversize chunks of raw tuna and steak, and a wedge of watermelon, all rendered with such transparency that they appear at once voluminous and insubstantial. Shunsuke Kano pairs colorful photographs with stark, graphic images, playfully connecting disparate imagery through shapes that visually connect the two. In "B&B_06," the dome of a cooked egg topping a bowl of food is mirrored below by the round mushroom cloud that dominates a city. The whiplash implications between the mundane domestic photo and, suddenly, utter chaos, is dizzying.
Some of the most moving images in the show are Arata Nojima's large and tranquil sylvan scenes. The artist "spent some time inside this particular ancient, ancient forest in Japan, and he's trying to communicate the feeling of being in this really old space, completely surrounded by vegetation through which light is filtering," says Via. The combined use of etching, mezzotint, and aquatint lend a watery, ethereal quality to the scenes, and the large size of the prints helps immerse the viewer in dense foliage bathed in pure, cascading light.
Via says that the gallery's docents have enjoyed asking visitors to identify the subject of Toshinao Yoshioka's large photographs. Many guess that the colorful, wet spheres in the four images from the "Place of Water" series are planets. They're actually melons in various stages of being peeled, but they certainly do resemble alien worlds suspended in the void. Microcosm mirrors macrocosm: veins become terrain, the rind a glimpse of crust or polar icecaps, the fruit's juices a glittering sea.
Nearby, a flat screen loops Toshinao Yoshioka's enigmatic short video, "Guidepost 6," placing the viewer in a perspective that soars around a single, shifting, downy cloud mass through an otherwise empty blue sky. Rushing air hints at a blustery-hushed voice. The title suggests a helpful pathway marker, and the intangible body seems to have a conscious presence for reasons as mysterious as the artist's method of creating this work.
An educational companion exhibit, "New Beginnings: Japanese Prints of the 1950's, 60's, and 70's," showcases 16 works from MAG's collection that explore the beginning of the studio print movement. In the post-WWII era, artists weren't creating prints as part of a team in big studios under publishers any longer, and these featured artists were part of a movement that paved the way for the contemporary artists in the main exhibit. MAG curator Nancy Norwood selected works which illustrate a diverse range of abstract and representational styles and subject matter, while displaying a clear Japanese aesthetic and weighty reverence for all things, from soil to someone else's god.