In the basement of this cosmetic company’s building is a gem of a gallery – a compact spot currently featuring work by four contemporary Japanese artists, grouped under the name ‘Tsubaki-kai’. First formed in 1947 to mark the post-war reopening of the Shiseido Gallery, Tsubaki-kai is a periodic gathering of artists; this 6th iteration, lasting from 2007-09, comprises six members, four of whom are included in the show: Yasuko Iba, Masanori Sukenari, Kyotaro Hakamata, and Miwa Yanagi. Trans-Figurative is not only the title of the exhibition but also an overarching concept for the group’s efforts for the next three years. Though vague, the flexibility of the theme easily allows for multiple perspectives and interpretations as seen in the work of the four talents represented.
A series of eight prints entitled Etsuraku or “joy” by Masanori Sukenari leads one into the show. Each piece contains several lines of text in English next to minimalist, abstracted forms or repeated geometric shapes in reds and grays. The simplicity of this work is reflected in this haiku-like comment from the artist: “I feel what I am seeing. The water is dark. I am standing in the middle of this river.” Sukenari also has sculptural work on the lower level that attempts to connect and relate to the architectural space of the gallery. Resonance, a metal totem tucked into a corner, looks sleek, technical, and cold, while another work, A Day of Birth, has a rough, rusted surface. The latter piece’s sharp edges look like remnants of extruded metal, leaving a vestigial clue behind about the process of its birth. In contrast the soft, subtle oil on canvas paintings of blue and white bowls by Yasuko Iba seem to have no edges whatsoever. Within an extremely narrow range of color, shading and form, Iba creates captivating images from the most mundane of objects. The rendering of shiny surfaces as well as the exquisite blending is compelling and enables the artist to make a plain bowl appear transcendent.
Kyotaro Hakamata’s installation, taking up almost two full walls, consists of singular, acrylic figures of varying sizes and shapes, all with faces turned towards the wall in postures of withdrawal or shame. In only two cases do two figures appear together; one pair has been placed in the middle, where the two walls meet – an embracing couple titled father and son. Two other figures, titled scream are especially poignant in that their hands are held up to their faces, which in turn are pressed up against the wall, doubly stifling any sounds they may try to make. The installation is called Families, and most can probably relate to the universal issues associated with familial relationships and the idea of struggling to move beyond the past or break difficult cycles.
The most arresting works, by Miwa Yanagi, are five photographs representing unusual women – grandmothers – who appear to be, in various ways, influential for the artist. Each includes an accompanying text that comments on the figure shown. In My Grandmother: Shizuka from 2004, an older woman seems to envision a rebirth by carving a new body, though the figure is incomplete. My Grandmother: Hyonee is a portrait of a distinguished businesswoman; the text provides her biography, even projecting her success into the future. Perhaps a hopeful commentary on the changing roles of women and foreigners in Japanese society, Hyonee’s eventual position in 2048 is as the oldest and first foreign (Korean) female head of a major TV station. The figures all have heavy make-up on their faces and in Kwanyi the subject’s eyes even glow. The pretense is obvious and clearly suggests, in relation to the exhibition’s and Tsubakikai’s leading theme, transformation as one path to transcendence.