Chieko Oshie at the Nishimura Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

Tokyoites seeking respite from the north winds’ impending winter can find shelter in the gentle blooming of Chieko Oshie’s new canvases – a series of beautiful pictures that trumpet the artist as harbinger of an overdue reinterpretation of traditional Japanese botanical painting. Osaka-based Oshie brings her fresh and light treatment of flowering plants to the Nishimura Gallery for her third exhibition in just over one year at the suitably airy commercial art space located on the city’s Ginza strip.

Some 30 oil, watercolor, and pastel on canvas and paper works make up the solo show, and judging by the number of works sold a week into the exhibition, Oshie’s vision and simple high-key palette are a hit.

"The paintings seem to be alive," says staff member Megumi Ogita in explaining his gallery’s enthusiasm for the young painter. Indeed, a soft-wash effect that suggests more the crushed mineral pigments and water of classical Japanese Nihonga painting than the Western oil and acrylic medium is what characterizes Oshie’s work. In her three panel "Kusaikire" (1998, 112x436cm), the artist lets a single red and green stem lead from the left toward a streaked translucent background of gradient greens and turquoises, upon which the flowers in bulb and blossom seem to float as light as air. There is a wonderful fragility to the pictures, and yet one is at all times aware of the artist’s hand in the process, as the cotton canvas is allowed to drink up the thin layers of paint that streak and stain it, diffusing and blurring the image.

More so than the painterly presence, it is the honesty in Oshie’s works that captures this reviewer’s attention. To describe the works as technically polished would be inaccurate (the remark "my mother paints better than that" is overheard from one young, snickering gallery visitor). But to miss an appreciation of Oshie’s way of working from the inside out, such that she seems to draw on the essence of her subjects and adapt her materials in search of an expressive language, is to miss out on what makes these paintings remarkable – the life there, something like the breath of spring.

It should be noted that Oshie’s 15 works on paper, push-pinned to the gallery’s north wall, own an admittedly arts and crafts class quality, having been executed as fieldwork for the more developed, larger paintings. But pricing these studies in the tens of thousands of yen adds a welcome dimension to the exhibition – the Nishimura has made Oshie’s work accessible, not only for prefectural museums and private collectors, but for those of us who do not have a million yen set aside to buy art from an emerging artist.

Oshie got her break two years ago when she was invited to show at the "Vision of Contemporary Art (VOCA) exhibition, an annual showcase of new Japanese painting. Held each spring at Tokyo’s Ueno Royal Museum, VOCA is perhaps the best round-up of young artists in this country, and Oshie’s participation led to her inclusion in the "Plants that Touch the Heart" show at Tokyo’s Meguro Art Museum later the same autumn. This year, Oshie exhibited in the "Transformation of Paintings ‘98" show at Osaka’s Contemporary Art Center before reaching final selection for the Philip Morris Art Award ’98. Not bad for an artist who is only 29 years of age (but already teaching at the Kyoto City University of Arts).

Oshie says her initial interest in plants sprang from chancing across a variety of burdock growing wild in a field near her college. The plant, which appears in the spring and changes color in the autumn, caught the artist’s attention and she floated it onto her canvases. Even as winter calls, it is a safe bet that we will be seeing more from this gifted painter, just as surely as the seasons will change.

notes: Until Dec 5, 1998 (3567-3906).
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