Shinro Ohtake at the Parco Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

I feel uncomfortable faced with a brand-new blank sheet of paper," writes Shinro Ohtake of his approach to art, "as if forced into responsibilities even before birth. If anything, I’d have to say my driving interest seems to come closest to collaboration with ‘what’s already there’, the results being what I call my work."

Ohtake’s art is, as one might gather, a mixed-up affair: part collage, part print, part drawing. There are multiple points of focus in most of the tableau, and a great deal of variety in both materials and subject matter. Some 100 mostly-recent works by the 44 year-old Ehime Prefecture-based artist make up the exhibition "Zyapanorama," now showing at the Parco Gallery in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.

Ohtake appears to have cleaned up his act for the Shibuya audience – while there are a number of dadaesque assemblages made from found object (one featuring a torn slip of paper with the word "dada" printed on it), the show is dominated by clean figurative works executed from a high-key palette that includes all the currently-hip flourescents. The pictures have, as the title suggests, a decidedly "Japanese" flavor, and tend to the retro – motifs that recur include the sort of tiles usually found in sentos, pastoral views that find Mt. Fuji in the background, and squid.

Plenty of squid, actually. Part of the fun in this show is that it ends up parodying the manner in which Japan appropriates and streamlines into icons those things in which it finds its identity – there are marine mollusks swimming in many of the world’s oceans, but when they drift by the shores of this archipelago they become the "Japanese squid," that seem always to be represented in exactly the same form. Moreover, whether intentionally or not, Ohtake’s "Zypanorama" takes us on the sort of tour in which the guide would carefully explain that "Japan is unique because it has four seasons…"

So desu ne.

There is a high level of skill in Ohtake’s draftsmanship and in the overall execution of the work, and , as has been the case with recent Parco art exhibitions, the youth-oriented gallery is merchandizing in a big way – t-shirts, matches, and stickers join the postcards and books that crowd the entrance area. Ohtake is a prolific publisher of good art books, and one of the first of Japan’s young visual artists to hit the West – he showed at the London’s prestigious Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) when he was barely 30 years old. More recently, Ohtake was one of five contemporary artists selected for the Cultural Olympiad Artist book project of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games.

"Zyapanorama" is Ohtake’s first solo show in Japan in over one year, and if there is a problem here it might be that Ohtake has tried to do too much – there are charcoal drawings, for example, and some moody blue monochromes that, with the limited exhibition space at Parco, are not afforded their own walls and hang instead in too-close proximity to other, very different pictures. This can be distracting, but then again juxtaposition and the art of impacting are very "Zyapanese," aren’t they? Also, a more thorough appreciation of the artist’s work is provided by subdued tones the less splashy works bring to the show.

Ohtake’s work is evolving in ways that may dissapoint some of his followers, particularly those who favored the so-called "garbage art" he made from found objects in the 1980s. It could be argued, however that the artist is still basically working with what his environment provides.

"The convoluted course by which I encounter ‘what’s already there’ in my own daily life and see it take new shapes," says Ohtake, "closely resembles the process by which the shapes already there inside me in my dreams are given concrete expression in my work. Collaboration with ‘what’s already there,’ whether internal or external, excites me."

notes: Until July 7 (3477-5873).
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