Masamichi Kotaki at the Forum Art Shop

by Monty DiPietro

It is the considered opinion of Shiho Ishiyama that contemporary Japanese artists need a new way to show their work. Here is an argument has been heard before: Art galleries are elitist and outdated, "normal" people do not bother to visit them. And, as there is so much creative effort being applied to advertising and design these days, the distinction between commercial art and fine art is becoming increasingly difficult to draw. So, letís just admit that the way we put art in front of the population has changed and deal with this new reality. An assertion that is not totally off the mark.

Ishiyama is a director at Exhibition Space, a clean, bright, and spacious room tucked in behind the cash registers of the Forum Art Shop, a clean, bright, and spacious retail outlet that sells Warhol prints, Keith Haring bags, and artist-designed fashion and lifestyle accessories, all under the wing of Tokyoís new International Forum, a sprawling complex which is described by the art shop nestled in its shadows as "a vital locus for the interchange of diverse cultures."

Exhibition Space is now showcasing the work of a new player on the local art scene, Chiba-based Masamichi Kotaki, whose "Neither a Point nor a Line" series of large paintings are a sort of Jackson Pollock meets Nihonga fusion that works. They are very nice. The space is very nice. The show is very nice.

If you are anticipating a sarcastic critical coup de grace on this exhibition, it is not forthcoming. This reviewer Ė long a champion of the raw and political and shocking; of the so-called avant-garde in contemporary art Ė is forced to admit that "Neither a Point nor a Line" is made up of well-crafted work presented a well-lighted space, and is well worth a look. And, to boot, Kotakiís new panels are reasonably priced from 60,000 yen, far less than what one of Tokyoís most revered commercial galleries was recently charging for a "serious" artistís enigmatic pocket tissue sized creations, which rather resembled an inflated packet of pocket tissues.

"There are decorative elements in my work, as in the traditional Nihonga style," says Kotaki, 37, a graduate of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Musicís Japanese Painting Program, "and while I want to take traditional Japanese painting to a new level, I canít dismiss the history of traditional Japanese painting. These days, young Japanese tend to embrace Western art and culture a little too eagerly."

Kotakiís acrylic paint and sumi ink on washi paper works are wide open invitations, uncluttered although possessing multiple points of focus and levels of depth beyond the picture plane. They are marked by diffused color and scrawlings which resemble the kanji characters found in Japanese calligraphy.

"I donít consciously try to draw kanji, but because Iím Japanese, my brushstrokes are based on the form of these characters," remarks the soft-spoken Kotaki. "I like it when foreigners see my art because Iím very interested in what they have to say."

Kotakiís most recent creations seem to be evolving more toward the decorative arts. Five abstract paintings on lacquered paper hang on a stone wall just outside the exhibition room, in the art shop. The multi-colored works almost seem to be acting as a bridge between the fine art hanging inside and the commercial art racked outside, further blurring any distinction between the two.

Exhibition Space is the brainchild of Toshio Yoshida, who also owns Harajukuís Graphic Station with its adjoining exhibition space, and a third, similar art shop/showcase in Ariake. Ishiyama explains, "We want to be here for people who pass by in the street, not just for people who go to galleries or department store museums or contemporary art museums. We want more people in general to access art, and sales from our art shop cover the costs."

Covering the costs has long been a problem for contemporary artists working in this country, where a majority of galleries still demand a hefty rental fee for their wall space, with no guarantee that anyone will drop by to have a look. While environments like the Forum Art Shopís Exhibition Space, with daily traffic of over 100 shoppers, are unlikely to bring together the kind of artists and visitors that will spearhead a radical new art, they are welcome in pointing out a new way to put art in front of people, and there is nothing wrong with that.

notes: "Neither a Point nor a Line" by Masamichi Kotaki runs until Jan 10 1999 at the Exhibition Space, Forum Art Shop, 3-5-1, Marunouchi, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo (3286-6716).
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