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Vaporous Molecules at the Tokyo Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

One question was "Who is Lee U Fan?", a fair enough query, as the prize had previously been given to painters such as Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, and Gerhard Richter, all of whom are much better known than Lee. To answer briefly: Korean-born Lee, 65, came to Japan in 1956 to study philosophy, and gained prominence in the late 1960s with the movement he inspired, mono-ha (school of things). Mono-ha was an attempt to develop an Asian aesthetic in contemporary art -- a 'take things as they are' sensibility that was a reaction to the pervading Western 'roll up your sleeves and jump in there and do something, Mr. Artist' attitude of the time. Simply stated, an alternative modernism.

Another question I got was "Who is the Japanese Art Association and what is the 'Praemium Imperiale?' I'm a struggling artist, can I apply to them for a grant of some sort?" Again, briefly, the Japanese Art Association is a bunch of old boys patronized by the Japanese imperial family; and the Praemium Imperiale is an puffed up annual ceremony in which huge cash awards (five million yen each) are presented to world-famous, late-career artists who are chosen, it would seem, because they need financial support less than any other artists on the planet.

The good news is that for the last six months, Praemium Imperiale laureate Lee and his one-time mono-ha disciple and long-time friend Naoyoshi Hikosaka, 55, have been using Ginza's Tokyo Gallery (a small but respected space which scored the name when it opened back in 1950) to do what the Praemium Imperiale does not do especially well, and that is help local emerging talent. Lee and Hikosaka are accomplishing this with their ongoing program, the "Vaporous Molecules Art Series." The current show is the fourth installment in the series, which continues to July of this year. Each of the scheduled two-person shows features work from under-40 artists, with the exception of this particular exhibition, which is a showcase of recent work by producers Lee and Hikosaka.

            There are seven paintings by Lee here, two large and one smaller oil on canvas works, and four acrylic on paper pieces. Lee's leitmotif is the single brushstroke of a muted color such as gray, applied with a wide brush such that it is about the size of a CD case. And that's it. The point to the work is found in the relationship of the brushstroke to the picture plane, and, with the larger pieces, in the relationship between two or more brushstrokes in a single composition -- hence all of the paintings are titled "Correspondence." It would be accurate to term Lee's style as 'minimal,' or even 'very minimal,' in the case of the single brushstroke pieces. This is art that takes time to appreciate, and this is also art that those who like to laugh at contemporary art have a great time mocking ("Jeez, my kid could do that!").

            Hikosaka's contributions are completely different from Lee's. These are three dimensional paint on wood works, boxes if you like, which protrude 20 - 50 centimeters from the wall and are covered with busy zigzags of orange, red, and yellow paint. There is an unfinished look to the work, what with pen and pencil lines showing through, and the initial effect can be off-putting. But again, time spent with the work can bring one around to the realization that there is a synergy here, that the wood is more than a ground for the paint, that the wood really is carrying the work. In the "Unreal Wood Painting" subtitled "<57577><58588>," Hikosaka uses groups of parallel strips of wood to first build the rhythm found in haiku poetry, then subverts this with an adjacent set of strips arranged in a dissonant order. Hikosaka has six pieces in this show, all from this year or last.

            Upcoming "Vaporous Molecules" exhibitions will feature everything from open spaces photographer Masahiko Kiyoka to weird collage artist Shoichi Kaneda, to the in-your-face Raita Ishikawa, who brought a bunch of skinned and suppurating ox heads to his Komaba Kunstraum show five years ago. It is encouraging to see the Tokyo Gallery and an artist of Lee's stature taking the initiative to present such an exciting series of exhibitions. For a complete "Vaporous Molecules Series" schedule (in Japanese) visit the Tokyo Gallery website: www.tokyo-gallery.com

Notes: The Lee U Fan and Naoyoshi Hikosaka exhibition is at the Tokyo Gallery (8-6-18 Ginza, Chuo-ku, 03-3571-1808) until February 2 2002. Pictured is Hikosaka - Unreal Wood Painting (2001), acrylic on wood.
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