Soichiro Shimizu at the Itochu Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

It’s been a happy homecoming for Soichiro Shimizu. After spending most of the last decade studying and working in New York City, the painter has come back, and to more than accolades – he has returned with a major sale to one of the largest corporations on earth and to a solo show at one of the snazziest little galleries in his hometown: Look out, Tokyo, Soichiro Shimizu is back!

The artist is all smiles, and why not? With a 2.4 x 4.3 meter mural now stretching across the lobby of one of the more trendy buildings at Sony’s corporate headquarters complex in Shinagawa Ward, and with everyone and his sister crowding an opening of Shimizu’s new work at the Itochu Gallery in Aoyama, the 32 year-old ex-pat has done in several years what most artists spend their lives attempting to accomplish: He has "arrived."

These are not times marked by corporate enthusiasm for buying art, and for those wondering how Sony came to commission a relatively unknown artist to paint a mural fit to fill a lobby, Nobuyuki Idei, the corporation’s president and CEO, provides an answer in a catalogue essay attendant to the exhibition. After seeing Shimizu’s paintings at a New York gallery show, Idei writes, he bought one, decreeing that it should hang at the Sony Corporation of America’s headquarters in New York, which it does to this day. The Soho gallery purchase may have been made with little forethought, but Idei soon figured that having Shimizu’s work at Sony’s Tokyo offices would be, well, nice in a symmetrical sort of way, and asked the artist to paint the mural that was installed in what Idei terms the "rather cold and stoic" reception area at Sony’s "Digital Dream Center," several months ago. An employee who works in the building reports that "the painting adds a warm glow to the lobby area."

Shimizu’s oil, acrylic, and tempera on paper, canvas, and board are nice in a, well, sort of symmetrical way. There is no denying the artist’s technical skill – each painting is made up of some 15 or more layers of paint that are applied, then partially scrapped off by Shimizu’s hands and a variety of tools. The works are then re-coated, and so on. The resulting pattern of beautiful pock-marks suggests that a chemical reaction has occurred, which, because the artist mixes oil and acrylic in the same work, is quite possible what has happened.

"There is an energy that I want to reveal through the scraping," says Shimizu, who includes meditation among his sources of inspiration. "Each layer has to completely dry before I apply the next, so scraping is part of my research, revealing the past." The paintings’ multiple layers and colors often appear to be radiating out from the center of the composition, creating the pseudo-symmetry of children’s arts-and-crafts-class splatter-and-fold pictures. Catalogue comparisons to the epoch-making qualities of Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut or Jackson Pollock’ Abstract Expressionism seem stretched – but while Shimizu’s work, in particular those panels that are clear-coated to a shiny, shiny finish, appear more decorative than revolutionary, they do possess at least one striking feature – they sell.

This is the first time in its short 18-month history that the Itochu Gallery, one of Tokyo’s most "New Yorkish" art spaces, is showing an emerging artist – previous exhibitions have featured Man Ray, David Salle, and David Hockney among others. If charming gallery owner Mariko Ito was feeling even a little trepidation going into this show, she needn’t have – less than a week after the opening, 22 of the 26 pieces have been sold. Not bad in a city considered generally unsupportive of contemporary art.

Could the Sony purchases have helped encourage first-time buyers to invest in art? Perhaps, and although it may cause mixed feelings among struggling artists to see one of their own pulled up into the spotlight by the fancy of a CEO schmoozing at an out-of-town gallery, there is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Shimizu certainly was when Sony came calling, and, with his quirky and polished mix of meditation and technique, may yet live up to an Itochu press release contending that he is "one of the most promising young artists of Japan."

For his part, Shimizu is taking his success in stride. "My priority in life is not to work for art history," he says, "I honestly just want to be happy."


notes: "Soichiro," by Soichiro Shimizu, is on until Feb 27 1999 at the Itochu Gallery, 2-27-21, Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo.
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