VOCA '98 at the Ueno Royal Museum

by Monty DiPietro

One of the frustrations experienced by people seeking to gain an appreciation of what is happening in contemporary Japanese painting is the relative chaos that characterizes exhibitions in this country. Where to start?

There are almost 1,000 galleries in Tokyo, many small and difficult to locate. Putting an afternoon aside to gallery-hop will often result in sore feet and an unsatisfying feeling - there are simply very few consistently good spaces here. The rental system results in a wild fluctuation in quality at the hundreds of pay and show spaces that dot Ginza and the rest of Tokyo. While some commercial galleries do show up-and-coming painters, the slow art market means that nobody makes money on the shows, which are often mounted out of sympathy for the poor painters. The trouble is that the casual art-buff has no way of knowing where and when these mercy-shows are running.

"Vision of Contemporary Art" (VOCA) takes away much of the guesswork.

VOCA ‘98, now on at the Ueno Royal Museum in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, features the work of 33 artists. Now in its fifth year, the annual exhibition showcases artists under 40 years old who are working in two-dimensional media. Although not part of the original directive given to selectors and judges, a consensus has developed that VOCA should focus on painting. There are several photographic works here, but most combine with other media in their presentation.

The paintings tend to be more figurative this year - VOCA ‘97 left this writer wondering whether abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning was the only painter art schools were exposing students to in this country. Among the refreshing surprises in this year’s crop are Yasuko Iba’s two 226x183cm oil on cotton and panel, untitled paintings of food.

This is luscious food which has more to do with desire that nutrition. The left panel features bright red pomegranate seeds, the right, lemon-filled, sugar-covered pastry. Worked up by the artist from gradiently out-of-focus, close-up photographs, the paintings are delicious without being completely discernable - the seeds could be cherries or even cod roe, the lemon could be pineapple. By defying any ultimate understanding of what exactly they are depicting, the paintings force the viewer to love them for what he or she wants them to be.

Iba, 30, received one of the five 1.5 million yen "VOCA Encouragement Prizes" for her work. A curious point is the vehemence with which Iba and fellow prize winner Shuji Okada, who also painted from photographs of his subjects, insist that they did not work from projected slides. One senses that for these young artists painting must remain sanctified, a far cry from the attitude of 1960s and 70s hyper-realists who unabashedly painted from slides projected onto their canvases.

"I want to avoid Modernism," says Okada, 38, who professes a love for Caravaggio (1571-1610), "and bring the power of old painting to contemporary art." The monochrome hands and forearms in Okada’s powerful "Take #10" stretch four meters across, dominating the museum’s first-floor foyer. The oil on canvas work is a high point of the show.

Some of the work here is derivative, to be expected from young artists only a few years out of art school. Questions arise over the repeat appearance of two artists who participated in VOCA ‘97 and whose work has shown little development in the interim, and the curator-filled selection committee’s decision to award an "Encouragement Prize" to Taro Chiezo, one of this country’s best-known artists. What Chiezo really needs is to be encouraged to try something new, something few at the opening were surprised to see that he has avoided doing yet again.

VOCA ‘98 is made possible by the Dai Ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company, which sets a wonderful example in corporate philanthropy by paying expenses, putting up the award money, and then purchasing all the prize winning works each year.

Overall, VOCA is probably the best way in Tokyo to save shoe wear and survey some of the country’s best contemporary painters - a group that is better than expected this year.

notes: Until Apr 12, 1998 (3833-4191).
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