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Kyoko Murase at the Taka Ishii Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

At the most basic classification level, most paintings can be assigned to one of two broad but fairly clear-cut categories -- representational or abstract. This is to say that what appears on the canvas has generally evolved either from people, places or things found in the real world; or from ideas and feelings expressed through colors and forms conjured up in the artist's imagination. I say "generally," because, of course, there are exceptions to any rule. Take Kyoko Murase.

Born in Gifu, Murase did her postgraduate studies at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Art, which counts Yoshitomo Nara, internationally regarded as one of Japan's top contemporary art figures, among its alumni. Like Nara, Murase moved to Germany soon after leaving school. She has lived in Frankfurt for the last 13 years. Murase's new oil on cotton, paint on paper, and wall painting installation, her second solo show in as many years at the respected Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, illustrate why the 38 year old artist is attracting a fair bit of attention these days.

Like the work she brought to this spring's well-received Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art group show "Fiction?," Murase's best new pictures each feature a different young woman subject wrapped up in an environment of amorphous color and broad, de Kooning-like seesaw swashes of pure white. Although Murase uses a fairly high-key palette, her pictures do not take on the garish or flat appearance one might expect. There is depth and warmth in these images, and the women appear to be floating -- their hair flowing, their bodies and especially their limbs turned but not twisted in positions which, although unusual, I do not think look at all unnatural or posed.

Murase says the inspiration for her distinctive style came to her while she was watching a movie: "A dancer in a circus tent filled a drum with water and got inside it." Murase also commented, in interview published in On Gallery magazine two years ago, that she is interested in "the boundary between the strong sensations of my memory and the fact that the image remains a story, the thin line between reality and non-reality -- a subtle thing that is extremely uncertain. If you were asked to describe it, you might say that it is nothing at all."

I might say that it was ephemeral. Try as we might, it is almost impossible to either move quickly or remain totally motionless while we are floating -- we surrender control in the moment, but we remain comfortably in charge.

Murase's current show, entitled "Chasing Butterflies" features five new medium-sized oil an canvas paintings with subjects pictured in this floating style. With their well-balanced colors and liquid atmosphere, the principle works all sold quickly at the vernissage.

Also here are six works on paper, of tree branches. To unify these pieces, Murase has done some painting directly on the gallery walls -- light and airy ribbons and shapes in off-white and thin color, in a style suggesting traditional Chinese scroll painting, describe a mountain and cloud background upon which the works on paper are displayed. While the foil enhances the look of the tree branch paintings, I don't think these pieces would really hold their own -- anyway, these remained unsold when I visited halfway into the run of the exhibition.

Thanks to the Museum of Contemporary Art group show "Fiction?" and current Taka Ishii exhibition, in a few short weeks a lot of people in Tokyo have started talking about Kyoko Murase -- and with good reason. When she is at her best, and by this I mean with the floating women pictures (although Murase also showed a series of drawings of girls who had fallen down in the forest, in an Osaka show in 2000, I have not seen these), Murase succeeds in communicating a unique vision that is both curious and comforting.

Just why this is remains a mystery to me. I wonder if seeing the serenely floating figures might subconsciously recall our time in the womb? I'm not sure exactly why, but somewhere between imagination and memory, in a place that is mysterious but warm and even familiar, we can find and feel a great deal of beauty in the spirit of this artist's work.


Kyoko Murase is showing to June 8 at the Taka Ishii Gallery (3-27-6 Kita Otsuka, Toshima-ku, Tokyo (03-3915-7784). The Gallery is open 11:00 a.m - 7:00 p.m daily, closed on Sunday and Monday.

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