Sunday, March 29, 2015

Abe Shunpo "Crow among Taro Leaves" Screen at Erik Thompsen Gallery NYC

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The Erik Thomsen Gallery specializes in Japanese screens and scrolls. Thomsen, himself, was born to Danish parents in Japan, speaks the language fluently, and was the first foreigner to be apprenticed to an art dealer in that country. For Asia Week this gallery focuses on some amazing Taishō and early Shōwa era screens and scrolls.

The Taishō and Shōwa eras cover the reigns of two Japanese Emperors, Taishō (1912 – 1926) and Hirohito, whose reign was the longest of any Japanese Emperor, stretching from 1926 to 1989. The transition from Taishō to Shōwa is often characterized as a transition from an era of liberalism and democratic reforms to one of ultra-nationalistic militarism, leading to Japan’s horrific defeat in WWII and its remarkable resurrection as a world economic power.

The piece I’d like to focus on in this review was by Abe Shunpo, and it was created in the early Shōwa era.  Among taro leaves, plume grass and eggplants, we see a crow lurking. The crow is actually considered a type of messenger from the gods in Shintoism but it has also served as a trickster figure in various world mythologies due to its reputation as one of the more conniving and opportunistic of animals. Indeed, crows have been discovered to have remarkable problem solving abilities. In Japan (where the crows are much larger and more aggressive than in America) some city crows will drop hard-to-break nuts into traffic so that cars can roll over the shells, breaking them and allowing the crow to eat the now accessible food.

The crow in this piece is starkly contrasted with the placid flora around it – it is almost a literal black mark on the nature surrounding it. Does it represent that capacity evolved from nature which signals a possible divorce and alienation from nature? Could the raven represent our own capacity to divorce ourselves from the natural world through our own forms of connivance and deception?

The eggplant produces a type of fruit which is actually a type of berry and toward the lower right of the image we see some ripe fruit ready to be plucked. Indeed, the ripe fruit depicted becomes an object of desire for the viewer and we therefore can feel some kinship with the hungry crow as it scavenges through this paddy, thus linking us again to this bird. Recognition of the crow’s capacity to exploit nature through its intelligence also, perhaps, can engender a longing in us to find a way to achieve an even greater, deeper or meaningful communion with nature through our specialized cognitive and emotional capacities.

Could this also be a political image? I have not been able to find much information about Shunpo but he did create this amazing work in the 1930s, as Japan was becoming more bellicose and inching closer to war. Perhaps the crow suddenly appearing in a peaceful paddy, partially hidden and partially exposed, represented a sense of apprehension, among some Japanese, as to the direction in which their country was heading. 

The Color of Desire: Japanese Prints from the Floating World Gallery of Chicago

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One of the reasons why the color red is able to arrest our attention so easily is that it tends to appear closer, in psychological tests, than it actually is. It has the longest wave-length of any other perceivable color and perceiving the color red has tangible and measurable effects on the human body. For instance, just perceiving the color red can increase your heart beat and an experiment showed that students who looked at the color red before taking a test did much worse than a control group of students who did not (the experimental group lost its concentration and wasn’t able to focus as well). Red is the ‘hottest’ color, it can trigger our ‘fight or flight’ response and it is a stimulant – basically, it gets us excited.

Floating World Gallery from Chicago has brought an amazing show to Asia Week called: The Color of Desire: Crimson in Japanese Prints. You get the crimson color through a mixture of red with just a little bit of blue, and, in fact, the first crimson dyes were made from the crushed bodies of certain female insects that derive their nutrition from the sap of oak trees. 

Many of the paintings in the show were apparently created in order to deliberately arouse desire, so the color crimson is often the background or part of the attire of the ultimate object of desire in the history of art – a sexy woman. Yet, a sense of desire is often induced in sometimes unconventional ways. For instance there are some paintings in the show in which we see women in the process of applying makeup or, in one piece, we see a woman whose kimono top has dropped, exposing her breasts, as she is hunched over cutting her toenails. We are invited to indulge in any latent voyeuristic proclivities that we may have – secretly watching the women prepare themselves becomes more erotic than gazing at the women after they have completed their beauty regimen.  Mishima once said, “Unrequited love is the highest form of love…”, here unengaged desire becomes paramount and one’s excitement is magnified through the surreptitious means of viewing that which is desired - the fantasy and the fetish provide more intense gratification than the reality of consummation.

My favorite piece in the show is called “Tipsy” by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi and it was painted in 1930 – the subject is a total Naomi. In Naomi (1924), a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki, a Japanese office guy in his 30s becomes strangely fascinated with a Japanese girl who works in a café and who adopts the latest in western fashion and whose face even looks a little European. His fascination with Naomi becomes all-consuming until he becomes, basically, her cuckold and slave.  So Tanizaki blends some of his hentai interests along with a concern for the early 20th century adoption of and fascination with western culture which was sweeping through Japan at that time. In Tipsy you see a thoroughly westernized Japanese girl, with a cigarette and martini – who is tipsy from both the alcohol and influx of Western influences.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ukiyo-e & The Japanese Tattoo Tradition at Ronin Gallery

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Initially, in Japan, tattoos were reserved to mark and identify criminals. Later, apparently, middle class guys who saw woodblock prints of tattoo-covered outlaws had their inner Walter Mittys awakened and began wearing intricate tattoos under their work clothes. It became a sign of silent, private protest against their comfortably crappy lives. They would be tattooed in such a way that if they wore their business suits, nobody at work would even notice – maybe a little bit like the male kinksters who wear women’s panties or bdsm chastity devices under their Armani suits to work on Wall Street - it’s their own little inside joke on the real world.

Horiyoshi III, a contemporary Japanese artist and master at body-tattooing, whose work is featured at Ronin Gallery’s show: ‘Taboo: Ukiyo-e & The Japanese Tattoo Tradition’, has also mentioned (in various interviews) a couple other impetuses for his clients to cover their bodies in meaningful ink, one being protection.

If you look at a lot of the creatures or figures or narratives that are tattooed on bodies, there is a definite totemic element here. These are often protector images. So these full body tattoos are often proof that the magical belief systems that dominated religion before the development of an ethically oriented spirituality of the city still linger. This feeling of a need for totemism shows that the old beliefs were never fully extinguished through urbanism or secularization and lie latent in all of us. Under their business suits many Japanese men hearken back to a completely different life of risk, valor and outright conflict and barbarism. They point back to a time of physical, cognitive and emotional exhilaration, not a time of slaving for a profit margin or fitting comfortably into a mediocre and petty human herd.

Horiyoshi III also likes to talk about the pain involved in getting one of these full body tattoos (you can see him at work on youtube).  The process can take years and when you watch him apply the ink in the various videos made of his work, you see that he does not play games. He uses a quick, forceful darting technique over and over again forcing the receiver of the tattoo to deal with immense and constant pain over protracted periods of time. The type of pain our entire society has been built around avoiding is embraced for the sake of a visual narrative that will either express beauty or meaning or provide totemic protection. In the process of going through this painful procedure, the person receiving the tattoo is rejecting the value of ‘comfort above all’ upon which our entire society is based. This is, basically, the most important aspect of full-body tattooing – accepting a process of pain and rejecting the hedonism which stands at the core of modernity. That is the whole point.

The show at Ronin is meant to show the relationship between woodblock prints and tattoos and includes the work of numerous Edo artists as well as Horiyoshi’s work. There are some cool photos of folks covered in tattoos by Masato Sudo and even some mixed media pieces by American artist Daniel Kelly.

Frankly, Asia Week has taught me that there is a significant art world away from Chelsea, the LES and Brooklyn and that these folks on the Upper East Side are amazing. Ronin has been showing amazing work for nigh 40 years now and has presented a not-to-be-missed show. Get there this weekend while checking out the other galleries in Asia Week (here’s a map: or try to get there before the show closes toward the end of April. There are good folks there who would love for you to check out their gallery and who will even explain stuff to you if you want them to.

A video about Horiyoshi III :

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Realms of Existence at Kapoor Gallery on the Upper East Side (Part of Asia Week)

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There are 42 different art galleries, from several different countries, participating in this year’s Asia Week (March 13 to 21). Most of these galleries and temporarily rented spaces are scattered around the Upper East Side, primarily in the 70s. You can check out the location of the various galleries through the map at Once you start popping in and out of these galleries, you should be able to find a booklet and map.

Interestingly, one of the highlights of this week is a gallery which is already established here in New York and has been here for quite a bit of time. Indeed, Sanjay Kapoor told me he is of the fourth generation of members of his family to be affiliated with this gallery filled with masterworks of Indian and Himalayan art. If you trek over to Asia Week, and you should (the galleries are free to enter and view art) you shouldn’t miss Kapoor Galleries.

In fact, if you want to see one of the most amazing master works of this art fair, you’ll have to go to Kapoor. They have a bust of the emaciated Buddha, an ancient artist’s depiction of what he might have looked like after 40 days of fasting under the Bodhi tree, which could easily be confused for a 20th century masterwork of expressionistic art. The gallery does not allow any photos of the bust to be taken, I am guessing, because a photo wouldn’t do this profound piece credit.

Of course, in religious-allegorical literature the number ‘40’ seems cross-culturally symbolic of a transition from one state of being to another.  Recall that Jesus fasted for 40 days before beginning his mission, Noah sailed for 40 days, Moses wandered for 40 years and even Mohammed did not begin his prophetic mission until the age of 40. So ‘40’ seems to represent a process of change (not a literal amount of time)and the Buddha probably did not literally sit and fast for 40 days under a Bodhi tree, but what’s interesting is that I don’t think this ancient artist bought into the literal interpretation either. His bust is a reflection on excruciating self-denunciation engaged in through a higher purpose and employing a calm, unwavering sense of resolve. Yet, he further adds to all of that by showing within the emaciated face, and sunken eyes, the first sparks of enlightenment.  It’s a piece about losing or rejecting life to regain a higher form of life. It’s magnificent and has to be seen directly.

This piece points, in fact, to a central aspect of the work in this fair which differentiates it from others. Many of these pieces are of deep religious significance to millions of people around the world – these are not just objects of interpretation but also functional, interactive objects. There’s a wonderful sculpture of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god, and at the opening people actually left money for Ganesha on the stand in front of the statue. He is the god who removes obstacles and some folks needed his help that day. (By the way, Sanjay said that change which was left will definitely go toward your down-payment on the piece if you choose to buy it.)  So why does Ganesha have the head of an elephant? I read that because elephants have big ears they can hear more requests from more supplicants. Also the press notes for the show indicate that to ancient Indians elephants resembled rain clouds and therefore are symbols of fertility and prosperity.

I'm featuring just a few pieces from this remarkable gallery in this review, including a head from the Gandhara kingdom (now, basically, in Pakistan), a kingdom which is famous in Asian art for ultimately showing a blending of Hellenistic and traditional Indian artistic techniques (the folks at the gallery will be happy to tell you more) after the onslaught of Alexander’s conquests. The head shows the placidity and strength of one who is enlightened.  There’s also an important painting of the mischievous baby Krishna inadvertently freeing two brothers who had been turned into trees for a drunken sexual escapade. The whole narrative is revealed in one painting, showing, perhaps, a rejection of self-renunciation by Krishna as well as his liberating capacity – in the story his mother has tied him to a large object to keep him out of trouble but he just merely drags the thing behind him, hitting and uprooting the trees and freeing the brothers. Everything the guy does benefits others, even when he doesn’t deliberately mean to.

Another amazing piece is an illustration from the Gita Govinda showing Krishna and Radha making love. Radha is a type of Penelope-like character who waits for Krishna throughout various battles with evil and even through various affairs he has with other women. I love this piece because, frankly, sexual union seemed to be the perfect metaphor or symbol for spiritual union in the ancient world. In this type of union the male represents a type of desire and the female a type of fulfillment of the wandering and searching male’s desire. Sexual union represented the union of a desire for a more humane existence and the fulfilment of that search. Yet, this illustration turns that scheme on its head as we see that Radha is actually the aggressor.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Kawara Retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum

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On Kawara, DEC. 29, 1977
Private collection
Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

The significance of On Kawara’s “Today” series could be in the fact that just by representing dates we have to focus on what the mere sequence of dates cannot convey about our lives. His work becomes a type of 'via negativa’ of our own experience throughout a course of time (‘via negativa’ is a theological term - we do not know what God is, but we know what God is not and therefore can intuit aspects of God’s existence by what God is not). These individually painted dates, of course, do not measure or record for us our own inner change, growth or development.  If one really wants to be exact, they do not necessarily have anything to do with our own lives, they just really record the continued existence of On Kawara from January 4, 1966 until his death last year.

Is this, therefore, a type of self-absorption or narcissism on On Kawara’s part? At the very worst it could be. Or it could even be a form of pessimism. Like Schopenhauer, On Kawara could be asking, “What is the common denominator of all of our days?” If we see a date from the past, we have to assume we ate, worked, did whatever we had to do to survive one more day. A painted date tends to obfuscate the coarse, natural processes we engaged in on that day just to get to another day, while perhaps falsely validating the process of existence as something autonomous from our physical beings - a date occurs whether or not we lived it or recorded it, after all.  What is the common denominator of each date?  The common factors are that we ate, drank, slept etc. each day. We forget all the natural, survival stuff we do on each day, and the date becomes a record of something apparently ‘higher’ than and divorced from the animalistic. Each date could, in reality, merely pay deep homage to our viscera and the will to live.

On Kawara
JAN. 4, 1966, “New York’s traffic strike.”
Private collection
Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

I think the key to understanding On Kawara, however, is that he synthesizes time and being. Time, as we measure and display it, is intricately tied to human being and action. Indeed, the recording of days is a phenomenon tied up with the process of urbanization, civilization and the creation of religious thought. There is no April 12, 52,000 BCE. A date now occurs whether we individually record it or not, and dates occur whether we are alive or not, but these particular dates in this show only exist in a represented form because On Kawara himself existed. He asserts that time is not autonomous from our individual being nor can we forget the intersection of being and the historical, economic and social processes we are born into. His dates are more than dates – there is history, culture, society, technology, individual experience, religion and philosophy embedded deeply into each painted date. To what extent are we a part of or divorced from this historical flow of time?  To what extent have we all been molded by the circumstances inherent in each of the dates presented?

I would also say there is no pessimism in the show either and point back to the ‘via negativa’ argument I referred to earlier. I think On Kawara points to the highest and best that we can attain to through his Today pieces. Let's say I am much more insightful and more humane than I was in 2006.  That didn't happen on a particular date.  My inner change was due to a process, probably not an event.  These individual dates, therefore, perhaps, point in a negative sense toward this type of process. On Kawara makes us think about what is possible through a sequence of days – which processes are possible? What do we hope to gain through enduring time in its petty pace? He implies, perhaps, that no one day is good enough – we need a long sequence. He opens up a whole range of humane possibilities through his paintings of a sequence of dates.

On Kawara
MAY 20, 1981, “Wednesday.”
Private collection
Photo: Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

It is, however, such an unusual experience to look at a date I lived through and just stare at the date not having any idea what I did or what happened to me on that day.  For each date that I stare at, I just have a vague idea of what I was doing those days or a vague idea of the sort of guy I was back then. What do we do or can we do every day to make each day meaningful? Can I look back on October 20, 2008 and be assured I didn’t waste this day? What about my life now makes me think I used October 20, 2008 well?

For me Kawara's work makes us focus on how interesting but glacial our own individual change has been and the possibilities for even greater, meaningful and humane development for ourselves and the world in the future. The common denominator of all of our days can be a higher process of development and individual engagement with each other, beyond the mere necessities of life.

Please be aware, by the way, that the Today series is just one part of this show on Kawara. The show runs through May 3, 2015.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mihyun Kang at Umbrella Arts Gallery

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Mihyun Kang has been in New York City for a couple years now and in her ‘My Midori’ series she photographed 50 women who, like her, had moved to New York from an Asian country. The women, however, are all depicted kneeling in public places in the city.  

In Kang’s homeland of Korea there is a type of kneeling position that children assume in front of elders. Korea has been heavily influenced by Confucianism and one of the central values of this system of thought and action is extreme deference and respect to one’s parents and elders.  This kneeling position, to be adopted before senior members of one’s family, is the position we find the women in Kang’s show to be performing.

This traditional form of kneeling would seem, therefore, to represent a response to the difference in values an Asian woman encounters upon arrival in New York City. Her initial response would be to  adhere to the form of socialization from her homeland in spite of the temptations of a city of extraordinary freedom, greed, excess and corruption. The posture in the various photos seems to show, at different times, defiance, solace, pride, confidence and maybe even some anxiety here and there. It’s one thing to be socialized in a country and then deal with others in the same society who have adopted the same attitudes and values. It is quite another thing to be socialized within a community and family orientation and then thrust into the hub of western individualism to be forced to make choices.

There are 18 prints in the current show. Kang found her 50 subjects among friends and friends of friends and found all her female Asian volunteers eager to participate in the project.  Kang and each volunteer wandered around New York City until they found what seemed to be a suitable place.  The most harrowing was on a rooftop ledge, 27 stories above Union Square. The woman in the photo surveys NY City from her kneeling position, showing little fear despite her precarious position in windy and cold November weather.  All of the volunteers have, interestingly, returned to their home countries.

Another interesting aspect of the photos, as Kang pointed out to me, is that people in this city just really don’t care what you are up to. As these Asian women kneel all over the city, you see folks just breezing by absorbed in their own thoughts and oblivious to the absurd situation right in front of them.

The show is called “My Midori” because, as Kang explains in her notes, Midori is a very common Japanese name. Kang wishes to highlight a common struggle for Asian women coming over to places like New York City and that Midori can be found all throughout New York, struggling with the conflict between the familiar and new, examining and assessing new challenges with old and new frameworks.  

What I think is interesting is that Korea, these days, seems to be in a type of social and cultural conflict of its own. The big conflict would seem to be between traditional Confucian family values versus the encroaching values of a corporate economy. Competition on every level seems to permeate the culture leading to everything from massive rates of plastic surgery to “seagull" fathers who work so hard and so long each week that they rarely see their own children, who are often either in school or after-school academic centers from the early morning until late at night. It might be interesting to see these women kneeling in various places in Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei etc. – western influences and corporate lifestyle changes may be creating incipient New York City experiences throughout all the metropolises of Asia.

Alison Rossiter at Yossi Milo Gallery

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For her current show at Yossi Milo, Alison Rossiter sought out and found unused photographic paper from every decade from 1890 through 1960, and subjected the paper to liquid developer either by pouring the developer directly onto the paper or by dipping the sheets.  Through the chance operations afforded by this method, she comes up with a number of starkly different abstract patterns.

So what does it mean to take very old photographic paper and develop it without first going through the process of employing a camera? By engaging in this process, to me, she is rejecting or repudiating what photography normally gives us or convinces us to believe.  She repudiates a radical divide between the inner and outer worlds as well as rejecting a way of engaging what we perceive as the outer world. That the world is filled with objects separate from oneself is continually validated throughout the process of conventional photography. We believe that the photograph gives us reality and objectivity, yet, the film we use has expiration dates because the colors and sensitivity of film alter and fade throughout time. Photography is our effort to use chemicals, paper and light to create images to convince us that there is an outside world to be sufficiently understood through measurement and equations.

Photographs are, in fact, constant proof to us of something that is, basically, wrong – photography reveals our passion to dichotomize and see nature and the world as various groupings of variously colored objects separate from our subjective reality. It exposes science as the methodology of, primarily, if not exclusively, only one of our senses – eyesight. Instead of seeking a union or synthesis of experience, we are satisfied with a mind/world divide which allows for a shallow but useful mathematical grasping of the world, which further causes us to become alienated from our own experiences. We are to examine our ‘inner world’ of cognition, motivation, emotion etc. as a ‘response’ to the outer world not as processes in conjunction with the world. Stimulus/response becomes as artificial a construct as mind/body or mind/nature and is part of the inherent ideology of photography.

Since this film has not been used, to a certain extent, it has already been rejected. A certain process has been over-saturated.  All the photos that needed to be taken were taken. This is all surplus. Whatever was felt needed to be documented was documented and the rest is waste.

So what does it mean for her to merely dip the paper into developer? These blotches, were supposed to be the fine lines and angles that delineate reality. We see the essence of description instead of what the photos purport to give us. We see the process of description and dichotimization revealed and it becomes unusable.