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The Gallery at Ben's Cafe

by Monty DiPietro

            I brought a visiting young German painter to Ben's Cafe in Takadanobaba the other day. We met to have a beer and chat, and because Jorn was eager to show me a book of some of his new work, with an eye on me maybe helping arrange a show in Japan. When ebullient owner Ben Watson looked over and remarked that Jorn could do a show in the cafe gallery, the painter smiled, and politely declined the offer. It was a telling moment -- in the West many if not most serious artists would be insulted by the suggestion that they hang their work in a restaurant, bar, or cafe. But, as those of us working here know all too well, this isn't the West.

            As I have mentioned repeatedly in this column, a nagging problem with the Japanese contemporary art scene is the dearth of quality exhibition space. At first, the numbers seem encouraging -- there are close to 1,000 art galleries in Tokyo alone. But most of these are "kashi garo," or rental spaces, where artists simply pay a fee to put up their work. As there isn't a critical selection process, the caliber of these shows varies widely. Generally, the receptions attract only friends of the artist and a regular band of art opening freeloaders there to gobble up the cheese and gulp down the wine before stumbling on to the next vernissage. Through the balance of a kashi garo exhibition's run, maybe a dozen or so browsers might drop in and sign the gallery guest book. Not a very good return on one's investment, considering that prices at kashi garos are typically several hundred thousand yen per week

            Viewed in this context, Tokyo cafe gallery shows can start to look like a pretty good alternative. There are a few galleries of this sort in Tokyo, and this week we'll look at one of the best, Ben's Cafe. An ex-New Yorker whose brother works at the Museum of Modern Art, Watson doesn't believe in charging for the use of his space, takes no commission on sales, and moreover has installed a professional quality track and wire hanging system on his light gray concrete walls.

            This month marks the fifth year anniversary of Bens's Cafe, and daytime manager, latte whiz and curator Chika Kanai has put up a group show featuring work by 11 artist friends of the cafe.

            One of these is Dennis Sun, a Tokyo-based Filipino painter who did the first ever exhibition at Ben's back in 1996. Sun paints bright and phantasmagoric pictures, and his latest work, featuring birds and balloons and a happy coffee drinker, is softer and more mature than previous paintings, but still as fun as ever.

            Also up is a new oil on canvas work by Eiko Makita, who had the previous exhibition at Ben's. Makita's latest picture finds a bunch of cafe regulars playing the Chinese game go, one of the favorite pastimes during the beery late evenings that give Ben's much of its character.

            Also noteworthy are a cute three dimensional dollhouse-style tribute to the cafe by Minako Nagai; a line drawing on wood panel by a fashion illustrator named Hiruma; and a 60s-esque psychedelic ink on paper work by Sachiko Nagoya.

            It is a feel-good, community-style exhibition. Certainly more people will see this show in busy Ben's Cafe than would if the work were up in one of those pricey yet ignored Ginza kashi garo, and this fact alone should be enough to earn Ben's a place on Tokyo's contemporary art map. After all, isn't exposure is what it's all about? Vietnamese painter Nyugen Van Cuong thinks so. He is planning to come in from Hanoi in mid-January to do his first Tokyo exhibition, and he has elected to do it at Ben's.


Notes: Pictured is an untitled oil on canvas by Eiko Makita. The Ben's 5th Anniversary group show is in to January 11 2002, when Nyugen Van Cuong opens with a painting show that will run to January 18. Ben's Cafe, 1-29-21 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku; 3202-2445; benscafe.com. Those interested in showing at Ben's Gallery are asked to contact Chika Kanai at art@benscafe.com
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