Katsuo Tachi at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

Just before the recent "G9" art-showcase exhibition opened at the Spiral in Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando district, Hidenori Ota, director of the participating Ota Fine Arts, remarked that his gallery was one of only a half-dozen serious art spaces in the city that were small, ambitious and solvent. Regular gallery-goers will recognize the names of the others - Wako Works of Art, Rontgen Kunstraum, the Taka Ishii, Koyanagi, and Koyama. For those looking to find a healthy mix of established and up-and-coming artists, the aforementioned spaces are tough to beat. Although there are but a handful of good galleries scattered over around the world’s largest megatropolis (one could find a similar number of on-par spaces in a single New York City block), several private museums glimmer on the Tokyo art-map, an otherwise uninspired piece of cartography dominated by hit-and-miss rental galleries exhibitions and touring blockbuster shows.

The Hara is arguably the most curious of Tokyo’s private museums. A 1938 three-story Bauhaus-style building with sculpture gardens surrounded by vine-covered walls, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is situated on a quiet residential street in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward. Next year will mark its 20th anniversary. "Few institutions in Japan," wrote long-time, now departed Tokyo art critic Arturo Silva, "have done as much in promoting Japanese contemporary art as has the Hara Museum."

The latest installment in the Hara’s ongoing series of small exhibitions is "Hara Documents 5: The Image Itself - Works by Katsuo Tachi," and once again curators have bucked trends by presenting a show of works in that almost-abandoned and now nearly quaint artistic medium - oil painting.

By the looks of it, Katsuo Tachi, 34, loves to paint. The Osaka-based artist’s works are a wonderful mess of thick impastos and thin, pale washes that describe biomorphic struggle - the Hara’s Atsuo Yasuda lovingly calls them "failures" - in a palette-knife frenzy of purples and yellows set against earth tones. The canvases are fairly large - some almost two meters high - and all seven on display stubbornly adhere to the same basic composition - paint thick and arc-like on the left, and thin and oval on the right, with wings, or leaves, or anyway something suggesting freedom and life sprouting out from the center and up toward the top. These are pictures that celebrate painting and the expressive possibility inherent in minerals and oil worked onto a stretched sheet of canvas.

Atsuo Yasuda, who curated the show, believes that Kansai artists are more emotionally expressive than their Kanto counterparts. "Especially during the 1980s, Tokyo art journalists discovered and became very interested in the very active and aggressive Kansai-based artists like Yasumasa Morimura and Tomoaki Ishihara."

While Tokyo suffers from a shortage of progressive art spaces, says Yasuda, the situation in Osaka is worse. What attracted the attention of Tokyo art writers over 10 years ago was the above-mentioned Kansai artists’ attempt to do something to improve their local gallery scene. A movement called "Yes Art" grew out of the sympathetic Ken Toriyama’s Gallery Haku in Osaka. Tachi was one of the younger and most aggressive of the Yes Art, and it was soon after he and his group began mounting shows in ad hoc spaces in and around Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto that the gang made their first foray into Tokyo with a show at one of Tokyo’s most respected avant-garde art spaces, Sagacho. In 1994, Tachi was awarded an encouragement prize at the Visions of Contemporary Art (VOCA) competition at the Ueno Royal Museum in Tokyo. The self-promotion, which included lectures delivered in an exaggerated Osaka accent, had paid off.

"Kansai artists are passionate and like to present themselves as performers, and a little wild," laughs Yasuda, who is also Osaka-born, "I think Kansai artists are basically more chauvinistic."

The energy in Tachi’s paintings attests to this, but it would be nice to see him try something new for a change, as he has been painting the same basic form (rather well) for years. This is the first major show of Tachi’s work in Tokyo, and is complimented by "The Painted Vision," which features several dozen paintings from the Hara’s excellent permanent collection of over 600 works. Highlights include a De Kooning and Rauschenberg. Also, don’t forget to have a look at what Morimura did to the museum’s first-floor bathroom, and for the seedy - you can lock the door behind you in Nobuyoshi Araki’s three-room porno hutch.

While the Hara plans a show of German photography for the Fall, until then it’s mostly oils at one of Tokyo’s most unique art spaces. For fans of new painting, "Hara Documents 5: The Image Itself - Works by Katsuo Tachi" is a worthwhile exhibition at a museum that is also well worth checking out.

notes: until Oct 11, 1998 (3445-0651).
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