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Mika Kato at the Tomio Koyama

by Monty DiPietro

The first time you see her, Mika Kato does not appear very different from the typical young female Tokyo contemporary art insider—another of the attractive and sophisticated sort that butterfly from gallery opening to gallery opening each Friday evening to sip white wine and style the scene so fashionably, so snobbishly.

Once Kato starts talking, however, her squeaky fresh voice and frank manner quickly tell you how wrong first impressions can be. Behind the apparently elitist exterior lives a warm and down-to-earth young woman from the Aichi countryside.

For this critic and many others attending the recent opening party for Kato's first-ever art exhibition, the artist's personality was a nice surprise and a refreshing change. I'm telling you all this because there was another, even bigger surprise for Tokyo's difficult-to-surprise art crowd the same night, and that was the work this delightful country bumpkin has been quietly developing for the last several years, work that is nothing less than awesome.

These are portraits in oil of dolls that Kato molds from clay. There are but three pictures in the exhibition, which is called "Canaria" and is now showing at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, a smallish but always-interesting and very well respected art space located over in Tokyo's Koto Ward.

The opening night atmosphere in the gallery approaches one of disbelief as wonder-struck guests step up close to the large oil paintings to examine the brushwork, then move back to view the pictures in from what limited distance the compact gallery affords. The art neophytes are wide-eyed and the jaded are more than curious, while Tokyo art vet and now-Tate man Johnnie Walker is beside himself—leaving the gallery early as usual only to reappear a while later for another look, as if he couldn't get enough of Kato's work.

It takes Kato about one year to do a single painting. She starts by designing and crafting her baby-sized dolls, which she details with glass eyes and human hair ("the 'Canaria' doll has my friend's hair!"). Next, Kato lives with and photographs the doll to develop studies of her subject. Only when she has found her doll's identity, and decided on clothing, background and lighting, does she begin to sketch the studies that will grow into her large (the largest being 194x194cm) oil on canvas paintings. While it is process that most informs this work, Kato is quite good with a brush, having majored in oil painting at Aichi Art University. She more-than ably employs a variety of techniques to produce subtly-shaded and realistic portraits that float spookily behind a faint and misty wash. Finally, the canvases are mounted on boards, the corners of which are rounded such that they approximate the shape of an old television screen.

"I wanted to make something that touched the viewer right away and grabbed them," says Kato. "I originally wanted to work with animals or faces, but this was too obvious because when I made them into a character it looked too much like animation. I wanted something that people had never seen before, and that is how I came to be attracted to using doll faces as my starting point."

The Tomio Koyama priced the pictures from 450,000 to 750,000 yen, high for works by a new artist. One hour into the opening party, all three were either reserved or sold, which is almost unheard of for a show by a new artist.

Kato's pictures are beautiful and at the same time they can be a little unnerving, especially when one picks up on details like the apparent burst blood vessel staining the white of an eye on the little girl in "Sunrise." There is much of what has defined Japanese art over the last couple of generations evidenced here: process, obsession, the virtual, and even the innocence and impishness often toyed about with by the likes of Taro Chiezo and Yoshitomo Nara.

Kato is an immensely-talented artist, one to watch. From out of nowhere (well, Aichi), she has arrived on the Japanese scene with a vision the likes of which we have not seen before. A great debut, and it is certain that this is not the last we will be hearing from Mika Kato.

Notes: Mika Kato's "Canaria" runs until August 5 at the Tomio Koyama Gallery in Koto Ward (3630-2205). Pictured is "Canaria" (1999), oil on canvas on wood

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