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Tadanoori Yokoo At The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

            With the press conference and vernissage just hours away, a team of workers were hurriedly making last-minute adjustments to the Hara Museum's big new Tadanori Yokoo show when one of them turned to me and said: "You know, many curators were trying for this exhibition." At least that's what I thought she said, as Yokoo, 66, is one of Japan's best known and most highly respected artists -- naturally there would have been competition for the honor of hosting his first major solo show in years. But I had misheard. The harried staffer had actually remarked that Hara curators had been <ital> crying <ital>. Turns out that the always eclectic Yokoo is also something of a perfectionist, and had ordered scores of changes in the show's appearance during the week leading up to last Sunday's opening. Some of the staff hadn't slept in days.

            But it looks like all the tinkering was worth it: "DNF Anya Kouru," as the show is called, is a great effort which effectively combines some 50 new acrylic on canvas paintings with photographs to develop the theme of a life journey. The recurring subject here is the Y-shaped intersection found in many of Japan's older neighborhoods, the place where a narrow street forks, presenting the traveler with two choices, both leading ahead but divergent. As these are all night scenes, only flickering lights in the distance hint at what might await one along either of the possible paths.

            This exhibition is something of a departure for Yokoo. While there is plenty of weird stuff and more than a few hidden messages (a Junichiro Koizumi election poster appear in one of the paintings, an American flag flying from the house behind it), mostly the pictures are realistic street scenes, very different from the spiritually-themed work Yokoo has come to be known for.

Working with everyone from Yukio Mishima to Carlos Santana, Yokoo used bold lines and vivid colors to build a reputation as one of the world's foremost poster (and album jacket) artists of the psychedelic 60s and 70s. Twenty years ago, he decided to leave all that behind and focus on painting. It was a brave move, and critical reaction was not always favorable. No stranger to sensation, Yokoo answered criticism of his often cosmic pictures by claiming to have been abducted by aliens. Further experimentation led Yokoo to abandon most of his palette -- for awhile, he painted exclusively with the color red.

There is a lot of red in this show, often used to suggest death.. Walking through a heavy curtain into one of the Hara's smaller rooms, the viewer finds himself in a close, quiet, all-red environment for the piece "Anya Kouro Floor and Rose," which sees a spooky Y-intersection painting as its focal point.

In the main gallery, meanwhile, are 16 more big paintings of Y-intersections, while off in the adjoining solarium are three copies of masterpieces by de Chirico, Magritte, and Utrillo. These sit on easels, unfinished, and after a little scrutiny the viewer may come to see that each of these pictures have some of the Y-intersection characteristics in their composition.

There are a number of photographic studies displayed in the museum's hallway. The pictures are photo montages, made up of left, center, and right side views of the Y-intersections. Again, a closer look reveals that the each of the three sections in each view actually come from different intersections, and so the paintings based on them do not depict a single scene but rather a composite of several. The more one looks at this show, the more interesting it becomes.

Also included here are a number of apparently unrelated works -- movie star postcards, some Picasso-esque oil on canvas and collage works, and "The Primitive Universe," a wonderful 5 meter wide triptych whose center panel sees a trio of figures in evening wear taking a "that's all folks" bow as they sashay across a field of human bones. Hanging nearby is Yokoo's "self portrait," an x-ray photograph of his skull.

Yokoo's decades-long interest in waterfalls is manifested here in "Ascent and Descent," an installation in the Hara's staircase consisting of a mirrored floor, spotlight, and several thousand selections from the artist's collection of waterfall postcards -- touristy mementos from places like the Rainbow Falls in Manitou, Colorado, and the Kegon Falls in Nikko. Written in white plastic letters on each of the stairs is the phrase "A DARK NIGHT'S FLASHING," a twist on the title of the moody Naoya Shiga novel "A Dark Night's Passing," from which the title for this exhibition is derived.


Notes: The Tadanori Yokoo exhibition "DNF Anya Kouru" runs to Jan 14, 2002 at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Visit the website (www.haramuseum.or.jp) or call 03-3280-0679 for more information.
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