Isao Sato at the Roentgen Kunstraum

by Monty DiPietro

Maybe good things really do come in small packages - that would account for the consistently high quality of contemporary art shows at the pint-sized Rontgen Kunstraum gallery in Tokyo’s fashionable Aoyama district.

Fifty people have braved a cold January night to crowd the Rontgen’s exhibition space - which is about the size of a six-tatami mat room - for the solo debut of Tachikawa-based Isao Sato.

"Passenger: Wideawake 97-98, Missing Link" features eight new painting and a small sculpture by the soft-spoken 30 year-old artist, who seems a little surprised by all the attention, but is handling it graciously.

Most of the guests are in their twenties, casual, anti-fashion types. They overflow into the gallery’s library nook, where the red wine is flowing, to discuss the intriguing works in the gallery. One looks at me and says, "it’s too minimal, it needs a heart," as he points a finger at Sato’s "Wideawake: Orange-Yellow-Silver, Passenger 97." It is the first time I’ve ever heard frank criticism at a Tokyo opening. A shaggy-haired kid with a video camera buttonholes me, "Look," he laughs, and pokes his camera’s viewfinder in front of my face, "It won’t focus!"

He’s right. The camera’s auto-focus motor whirls the lens barrel back and forth as it attempts in vain to get a fix on "Wideawake: Yellow-Orange-Silver, Passenger 98" [1998] a 230x110cm work that holds the gallery’s west wall. Staring at the art work, I feel drawn through it and into the space behind the painting, only to have my eyes dizzy me as their point of focus is pushed back from the picture plane.

Sato’s paintings achieve a sort of "irritainment" - they irritate and entertain as they flux beyond perceptual control - much in the way that cool 1960's Op art, like, freaks out your eyes and blows your mind, man.

But Sato’s work is rigorously formal. He begins by air-brushing a color field of synthetic resin paint onto a wood panel. He then meticulously superimposes hundreds of 3-5mm strips of plastic letraline design tape in regular vertical intervals, and finishes by painting silver horizontal lines across the panel before applying a coat of acrylic lacquer. The result is a grid of obsession, described in perfectly balanced color.

Sato, who teaches a weekly color theory class at an Itabashi community college, says that he was always destined to be an artist.

"When I was five years old, I don’t think I really knew what a painter was, but I wanted to be one," he explains. "I wasn’t very good at other things like running or studying when compared to other children, but my paintings of flowers were really good."

After high school, Sato went through a sleepless week of fasting that marked the beginning of a spiritual search. Sato’s benevolent Aunt Yuriko dipped into her savings and sent him off to England, where he entered the Goldsmith College of Fine Art at London University.

"I was fed up with the Japanese art-educational system, which is so academic, and I wanted to study philosophy as well," he says. "The tutors at Goldsmith were artists who asked us to find an objective eye to analyze social situations, not only art."

Life in London suited Sato. He went from "hopeless" to fluent in English. He got a job selling Chinese porcelain at the Mitsukoshi Department store, and weekends he played classics on the blues harp in his band "Isao Sato and Galaxy Romance." He also relished the opportunities he had to meet and discuss art with other creative people in pubs, at openings, and at the college.

Within two years, the artist’s subject matter evolved from country roads to the grids he is showing at the Rontgen Kunstraum. The inspiration for Sato’s work comes from the brick buildings he observed for the first time in London, and the variety of form, function, and meaning that could be built up using regular bricks. The artist had found his theme, but equally important, Sato reckons, he had found himself. He repatriated three years ago with what he describes as "a universal spirit."

Sato now works in Studio Shokudo, a nine-artist collective housed in a Tachikawa warehouse. If there is the promise of a new and vital, home-grown art in this city, it is being born in the cross-pollination of Studio Shokudo, and it is sprouting in a tiny Aoyama gallery.

A small start in a big city, but nonetheless, a sign of life.

notes: Until Feb 7, 1998. (3401-1466).
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