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Ultimate Beauty

Takuya Sugiyama, Yuji Hamamura, Erika Harrsch, Eva Petrič, Johan Wahlstrom 
Curated by Motoichi Adachi and Kyoko Sato
Tenri Cultural Institution

Curated by Kyoko Sato, who for two decades has worked prolifically in New York, bringing Japanese art to New York venues; and by Motoichi Adachi, a broadcast writer who collaborates closely with the television industry in Japan, “Ultimate Beauty” seeks to redefine commonly held assumptions about contemporary art. The group of five artists, two of them Japanese and three from different places in the West, are stylistically different (Adachi had conceived of the show as presenting Japanese artists alone, but Sato opened the exhibition up to include artists from the West). Yet these five participants communicate a quiet opposition to standards of accepted beauty in contemporary art. This is a time of unusual eclecticism in art, but it is also a period of internationalization, in which artists borrow from cultures and periods at more than some distance from their own. Looking at the work of the artists, one sees a broad spectrum of styles, most of which cannot be easily tied to the cultural origins of the person making the work. In a way, the helter-skelter presentation of the five practitioners underscores a new way of seeing, in which individual sensibility drives the work, rather than the milieu we associate with the artists’ background.


What does it mean to violate assumptions associated with boundaries of geography and time? Curators Adachi and Sato, in choosing to work with artists from all over the world, forcefully emphasize the worldwide esthetic driven by extensive travel, work made in places distant from each other by the same artist, and an unwillingness to commit to a specific style. This means that fine art is unbounded by specific cultural constraints. Instead, what counts is the individual’s sensibility, in which a more or less private penchant for a style overrules the more general outlook (if there is one) shaping the culture he or she comes from. Pluralism, active since the Seventies, now dominates our sensibilities; there are as many ways of working as there are artists. The lack of a defined cultural identification is not without its difficulties, though. People borrow until there is no map to read–only a heap of personally chosen details. Cultural biases break down in the face of the moment, which is esthetically neutral, the result of being diffuse to point of visual anarchy.


But that's the point.  The appropriation we now so casually practice is, on some level, an affront to all notions of hierarchy. Anyone, from any kind of background, can work any way he or she wants to work. Again, this can result in intellectual clutter, or it can celebrate the use of a side-by-side interpretation of several backgrounds presented in the same moment. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century, made use of African masks to accentuate the faces of the women he painted, as well as confront his audience. But since then, we have gradually moved to a point where the impact of such borrowing has turned commonplace. This has ramifications not only for the artist, but also for the curator and writer, who must find ways of joining and interpreting a broad array of influences. The practice of eclecticism can be challenged not only on a visual level, but even on an ethical one. Yet the debate, if there is any debate at all at this point, must be informed by the fact that such borrowing actually has been taking place for almost as long as art has been made. In choosing the artists they have, Adachi and Sato have made it clear that the appropriation of styles, by five artists from all over, is both a challenge to cultural hierarchies and a recognition of the ubiquity and historical length of the practice of borrowing.


The art in the show proves the curators’ assertion, namely, that the artists seen in “Ultimate Beauty” are advancing a point of view both part of and outside the mainstream. Takuya Sugiyama, born in Japan in 1987, finished a degree in environmental design at Tama Art University in 2011.  His colorful abstraction, made up of a horizontal row of three inchoate forms in luminescent hues such as semi-semi-transparent red and blue, is meant (according to press notes) to erase the self in favor of direct communication between the work and its audience. The shapes are vertical, and come close to being rectangles, but to a New York City audience look like they are loosely tied to the abstract expressionist style. Their feather-like edges also introduce a note of complexity. One can see Sugiyama trying to escape the trap of egotism in the works, an attribute easily found in Western non-objective expressionist art.  The shapes do seem to exist on their own account, as if they magically occurred under their own auspices, without someone creating them.


Brilliant (2021), the lucent blue painting of the sea by Yuji Hamamura, a 52-year-old self-taught painter living in Japan, is clearly a study of light illuminating water. Small waves dappled with light, dark blue on the upper left and brighter with light on the lower right, result from slight curves indicating individual shapes. The painting’s design occurs throughout the composition and is so regularly developed as to suggest something unrecognizable–an abstraction of the sea as much as the sea itself. Hamamura, attracted to beaches and the bright light of the sea, manages here to invest his image with a sovereign beauty not found so easily in contemporary art. His point of view is most evidently realistic, but a strong element of abstraction occurs as well. By merging different approaches to art, Hamamura creates a complexity compelling to the eye.


Erika Harrsch, a Mexican painter now based in New York City, is showing “Touch” (2009). An artist given to women’s concerns; Harrsch offers us a complex painting. Dominated from top down by a woman wearing a short black skirt (the image begins at the figure’s thighs), with one leg wearing a knee-high white sock, the figure is striking but entirely anonymous. Unidentifiable abstract squiggles and splotches frame the woman on either side and on the floor beneath her. At her feet is a mass of butterflies, two or three of which have escaped and are fluttering above the group. "Touch" is an allegorical painting whose implications are unsure. Why is the female form truncated? Why the mass of butterflies on the floor? And why the random abstract doodles and spots surrounding the figure? It is difficult to say, but these enigmatic elements result in a noteworthy work or art. Sometimes mystery that remains resolutely mysterious and resistant to explanation can succeed simply because of its enigmatic qualities.


Born in Slovenia, multimedia artist Eva Petric spends time in New York and Vienna, showing throughout Europe and in New York. Her fabric collage, called "Can You Swim" 2019) consists of lace on netting. The general color of the draped piece is a dusky tan. A large collage, the work offers, in the seeming center lane of a pool, a figure swimming. Forward, toward the top of the composition. On either side of the swimmer is a loosely rendered figure. Underneath, some squarish, darker tan forms exist. Petric often works with lace; beside its being a material traditionally associated with women, its inherently ornamental enabling the artist to address clichés about feminine work and art. Although the work is not skewed toward an accusatory feminism, it is deeply feminine and represents a woman’s point of view.


Born in Sweden, Johan Wahlstrom now lives in New Jersey. Earlier, he had embarked on a career as a rock musician. He follows the trajectory of abstract expressionism, a style strongly evident in his painting “Total Confusion” (2022), The title refers to the intricate, unrestrained pattern of thick red lines, drifting across the canvas like semi-coiled rope. Underneath, thin red lines and small, splashy forms serve as a randomly expressed background embellishing the white space behind the twisting, red rope-like shapes. New Yorkers recognize the strengths of Wahlstrom’s style at once; it is another variation on expressionist abstraction, a way of working still very strong in this city. Wahlstrom’s art proves that such an expressionist manner has been thoroughly internalized throughout the world. His version of the style, elegant and precise, random and intricate, here has made for a good work of art.


Adachi and Sato have worked well together to produce a group show notable for its stylistic variation and uncommon energy, choosing artists from different places, Japan and the West, they manage to make their belief known via a committed independence in terms of image choice. Art is now so often a copy of a copy; many young artists are making a career of often insipid repetitions. But the work in “Ultimate Beauty” embodies the faith that art can use the past to emphasize the future, despite the dangers of excessive adherence to earlier invention. That does not happen in the very broad diversity, stylistically speaking, of the works on exhibit. The exhibition shows that this is a time of experiment, and that any manner of working is acceptable. But the show never descends into chaos; instead, order is intuitive, personal. When we have left duplication of the past for a merger of the past with the present, art’s advancement will start to attain the originality needed to go on.


Jonathan Goodman, February 3, 2023

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