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VOCA 2000 at the Ueno Royal Museum

by Monty DiPietro

Once a year some thirty of Japan’s leading public museum curators and a couple of the nations most-esteemed art critics come together to select young artists (one per committee member) whose work illustrates their "Vision of Contemporary Art," as the exercise is called, and it is that time again: The show they call VOCA is in town.

This is the seventh year the Dai–ichi Mutual Life Insurance Company has sponsored VOCA, which is settled in as usual at the Ueno Royal Museum, a little box of an art space in Tokyo’s big east-side park. After the show’s two-week run, Dai-ichi will buy the winning pieces (company statement: "the current economic situation is hardly advantageous for corporate philanthropy, but we think this gives us all the more reason to do what we can"), which is a fine bit of benevolence from what seems a heck of a nice firm.

Now the bad news: A majority of the mostly-large paintings here look a lot like the sort of thing one would expect to find adding atmosphere to a lobby. The works are pleasant enough to look at and hold the walls quite well, but they seem to lack the courage to jump out at the viewer. Not that these elements are necessary in a work of art, but scarce among the pieces are statements, either personal or political; even rarer is passion; and almost absent is the painterly presence—we are not left with a very good impression of who made these pictures.

One of the criteria given to committee members was that their VOCA artists had to be under 40 years of age, and while a lack of experience might explain away some of the tentative works, it is probably the conservative university art departments in this country that are to blame for the more safe and studied paintings.

Of course there are exceptions: there is a great deal of energy in Manika Nagare’s de Kooningesque abstract canvases (which, with the titles "Gill Hole" and "Smoking in the Sun" take this critic’s award for best-named paintings in the show), and there is a very effective communication of place in Ryo Takahashi’s two "Interior Scene" panels. (Takahashi being one of the only self-taught artists in the show.) Also noteworthy is a big three panel work from Takashi Murakami, Japan’s hottest artist. In "When the Double Helix is Aroused I hear a Familiar Voice," Murakami uses his "super flat" acrylic on canvas and board technique to render his Japanimation characters in swirls of red, pink, and blue that play across the four-meter-wide piece.

VOCA judges gave the top prize to Etsuko Iwao, whose complimentary acrylic on canvases "Oslo" and Cuzco" feature what look like green icicles hovering in a midnight blue sky over a sandy brown horizon. There is an aquamarine foreground to the pleasant composition, which is soothing and inviting in a mysterious way.

While VOCA’s focus has always been on painting, a smattering of photography and conceptual mixed media works can be found on the museum’s two floors, highlights among these include Ryudai Takano’s classically-posed nudes and Keiko Miyaji’s lambada prints.

VOCA 2000 is a good introduction to the work of several dozen young Japanese artists. Because most of the selectors come from prefectural museums and have nominated locals, the show provides an opportunity to experience paintings from all over Japan—work that speaks in steady but not exactly strong voices. The main let-down here is that so few of these young artists seem willing to take the chance and shout, perhaps out of a fear of embarrassment. Let’s hope the recognition VOCA affords these artists will allow them to bring a little more self-confidence into their work in the future.


VOCA runs to Mar 30, 2000 (03-3833-4191). Pictured are (top) "Interior Scene," mixed media on canvas, Ryo Takahashi, and "Oslo," acrylic on canvas, by Etsuko Iwai
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