Setagaya '99 at the Setagaya Museum of Art

by Monty DiPietro

Basking in the warm and forgiving light of youth, a school arts and crafts fair of finger paintings on cardboard, macrame, papier mache, and waribashi sculptures is a great place to suspend one’s critical eye and soak up the innocent act of creation for creation’s sake. Unfortunately, we tend to look a little more coolly upon the watercolors and plasters of those amateur artists whose work appears in the grown-up art fairs that periodically pop up in post offices, community centers, and company showrooms. Players in the often-elitist art scene rarely attempt to undo the way art by amateurs is regarded – there is not a chance in the world that a local critic will cover a corporation’s annual employee art competition, the winner will have to find their 15 minutes of fame in the company newsletter. The amateur arts and crafts fairs at public museums do not fare much better in their attempts to be taken seriously.

Some 120 works by an equal number of Setagaya Ward residents are now showing at the Setagaya Art Museum’s "Setagaya ’99," and it comes as no surprise to find the opening party fairly thin. When this reviewer begins chatting with Chihaya Nakagawa, whose "Self Reflection" is the show’s sole mixed-media installation piece, the mere appearance of a press-style cassette recorder draws stares from around the room of dressed-up Setagaya residents. This is not an entirely bad thing, because artists and art-lovers actually outnumber the socialites and freeloaders for a change.

Thumbing through the catalogue, I stop to look at a red painting that had caught my eye. As I am trying to decipher the artist’s name, a thin arm reaches over my shoulder and a strong finger hits the picture. "This is mine," comes the friendly voice of Shosuke Fukao. The 75 year-old is bouncing on his toes, and beside him stands his wife, Shizuko Osumi, 77, who has a nice, dreamy landscape painting in the show. The pair look like the stereotype eccentric couple from a 1950s Disney film. In bohemian dress, with ruffled hair and accessories that appear to be homemade, they have the aura of people who live for the sheer joy of inventiveness in their everyday lives. I consider asking Fukao if the pair’s kitchen has an elaborate but not-yet-perfected apparatus that fries eggs and percolates their coffee each morning – and only just stop myself. Instead, I inquire about the mysterious black figures in his painting, "Red City."

"They don’t have names, they’re ghosts and monsters, that’s all," he laughs, and leans toward me with a sly smile, "don’t you like ghosts and monsters?"

Setagaya has its share of well-known artists, Tadanori Yokoo and Yuichi Higashionna among them, and it is good to see their participation here. Yokoo is showing an oil painting representative of his current red period, while Higashionna is previewing the work in felt-and-silk that she will show at the museum’s Art/Domestic exhibition in February.

"Setagaya ‘99" is primarily a venue for amateurs, and, to be sure, there is a lot of very derivative work here. But the efforts by Franz Kline, Paul Delvaux, and Henry Moore-wannabes are almost enjoyable, in part because they not allowed to dominate a show that includes a variety of paintings and sculptures sufficient to ensure that visitors will find something to capture their interest. There is also some of that wonderfully quirky amateur art that could be just plain bad or could be high kitsch, again, something for everyone. That the elderly selection committee of 25 senseis has selected a mostly elderly group of artists is predictable, and so only mildly disappointing. All in all, the show is good fun, and because the Setagaya Art Museum is a superior place to view art – this is no school gymnasium – the works on display all enjoy a healthy boost from the tasteful environment.

A few years ago, when Art Tower Mito were organizing their annual local residents’ art fair, I happened to mention to a curator there that I was going to be in Ibaragi Prefecture anyway that week and might drop by for a look. "Oh, no, don’t – I hate this show, but we have to do it," said the curator, whose shuddering voice suggested that some of the respected art space’s staff members were considering scrubbing down the ATM’s defiled walls when the amateur exhibition finally came down.

It is this kind of haughtiness that has to be brought down if contemporary art hopes to shake its elitist image. In its place, more participatory shows like "Setagaya ’99" need to go up.

notes: Until Jan 31,1999 (03-3415-6011).
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