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VOCA 2002

by Monty DiPietro

It's been almost one hundred years since Wassily Kandinsky began creating what are generally regarded as the first purely abstract paintings. The Russian's 'compositions,' as he termed them, freed the artist from representation, and opened up a new world of expressive possibilities. These were fully explored in the 1950s by the painters of the New York School (Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning et. al.). These days, abstract painting has lost much of its appeal. Once the most revolutionary means of expression available to the artist, now it ranks as one of the safest.

The Visions of Contemporary Art (VOCA) exhibition, held each March at Tokyo's Ueno Royal Museum, is a showcase of 33 young (under age 40) artists, each nominated by a prominent critic, professor, or curator from a distinct region in Japan. There is an understanding among nominators to put painting ahead of the more popular contemporary art mediums such as photography, video, and installation, and as such we get a lot of abstract painting at VOCA. I would go so far as to say that from its inception nine years ago, VOCA has been plagued by work whose meandering forms and unnatural colors affront viewers from the large canvases favored by today's young artists. Because ambiguity perfectly suits artists are not quite sure what they want to say with their work, but are determined to say it in a big way, contemporary abstract painting has become a cop-out, and a critic's nightmare.

I'm not going to identify them by name, but there are some really ugly pictures at VOCA this year, work that would make me wince if I saw it in a garage sale. What partially redeems the show is the fact that it was, in effect, curated by 33 different people, and so the crappiness is interrupted by a few, maybe five or ten, pretty good works.

Asao Soya, 28, won the grand prize this year with a painting of a bathtub. Color and atmosphere-wise, it's a beautiful painting, really. But it still is a bathtub. As noted by guest curator Yuko Hasegawa, there are a number of females here who (mindful perhaps of the macho reputation of abstract painting) have effectively painted objects found in their everyday lives. Also very good are VOCA encouragement prize winner Tomo Goto's Hopper-esque views of the back yard of a Western-style family house, these done in hobby paint on glass. YaDa, a big jolly fellow from Aichi, has nicely disturbed the blandwa with a wall full of pictures of greasy food, policemen, and rotting dead cats ("My theme is social politics and food"); while Shinichiro Kitaura continues his bold and hard edge style with a giant red-on-white stylized formation of rockets.

Funny thing, I was actually encouraged by the smattering of semi-negative comments buried in the VOCA catalogue essays last year. I thought perhaps organizers might have made the sort of changes that would have improved the work this time around. But no. Still, among the 70-odd nominators and recipients, there is not a single non-Japanese (although non-Japanese play a key role in the training and development of Japanese contemporary artists, and foreign collectors basically set the market for Japanese contemporary art). Still, nominators seem be looking or safe, non-challenging work (critic Satoru Nagoya, at the reception, frankly explaining to me why he nominated Soya: "there is nothing wrong with the work, nothing problematic"). Still, there are the big blobs of paint dripping from wall-filling pure abstract and heavily-abstracted works.

This year, inadvertently, perhaps, VOCA's shortcomings are hinted at not in the essays, but in the catalogue introduction: "It will be interesting to see," write the organizers, "what implications are hidden in the works of young artists as they explore the possibilities of expression in artů" The word that doesn't belong here is 'hidden.' This is art by young people! They ought not to be hiding messages, they ought to be shouting them!

By way of comparison, I would point to the currently running Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial Exhibition. Everywhere there are thought-provoking works. There is controversy, and there is a wide variety of styles. Yet New York critics have not been kind to the Whitney 2002. I can only shudder when I imagine what they would have to say about this year's VOCA show.

Pictured is VOCA Prize winner Asae Soya with her work Bathtub. Visions of Contemporary Art (VOCA 2002) is showing to March 31 2002 at the Ueno Royal Museum, in Tokyo's Ueno Park (03-3833-4191) Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, and admission is 500 yen.
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