A curatorial mapping out of the obscured or circuitous byways of the artist’s career leads the viewer up to the opening stages of that artist’s maturity, a kind of focal Shangri-la. Questions are posed along the way as navigational aids: How far into the past does the artist reach to discover his or her balance in the present? Which crabwise borrowings from and interactions with contemporaries figure most prominently in the artist’s development? What struggles and experiments help define the search, the innovation? In the broad terms of career arc, where does the artist begin and where does he or she end up?
Painted Matter (Atlanta), 1997 Photo: Masataka Nakano
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo’s sprawling retrospective of Shinro Ohtake’s career answers these questions by accident as much as by design. (Or is this a retrospective of his life, punto? The show’s title, Zen-Kei 1955-2006, presumably encompasses the years before he started his artistic output—but in this colossus’ case, who knows? He might have been modeling cylinder-cone-sphere sketches straight out of the womb.) The breadth of the work on view offers articulate responses insofar as it plows expressively through the curatorial questionnaire. There are innumerable, far-flung allusions, borrowings and false hinges jumbled throughout, many of which reappear and recombine unexpectedly; just when one feels Ohtake is hitting his stride, he peels off the other way with raw verve — a navigational hazard.
One of the most unusual results of this helter-skelter working method drowns out a three-painting series begun in the late seventies. Mr. Peanut (1978-81), brusquely painted against a black background with spectral red and white slashes, is being jolted out of his iconic boulevardier monocle and top hat into oblivion by a metallic Les Paul that has been mounted, a bit precariously, onto the canvas—this is amp-induced shock therapy gone awry. It’s a funny, hysterical image that invokes DeKooning’s women, Warhol’s soup cans, Dine’s assemblages, Polke’s cartoons, abbreviated punk graffiti and Jimmy Page without necessarily synthesizing them. Oddly enough, the indexical range of sources makes questions of synthesis seem somewhat beside the point. Enraptured, he chews his half-digested influences up and spits them out, a process that veers eerily into autophagy; it’s no wonder that the ‘90s saw Ohtake doing Herculean color field abstractions that resemble mutant samples from a Petri dish, blown up thousand-fold, wrapped in cellophane and masking tape.
Eclecticism here is less a product of stylistic curiosity than of savage intensity, which explains why driving rock and roll (symbolically, the recurring, totemic electric guitar) has a death grip on Ohtake’s feverish imagination.
At the same time, it reveals why his obsession with the nimble stylistic juxtapositions of early Hockney, though understandable, comes off as slightly misguided. Ohtake, a middling but determined draughtsman, can only mimic the delicate contour lines, expertly placed squiggles and dashed-off yet descriptive poses of, say, Hockney’s virtuosic Rake’s Progress and Cavafy suites.
Left: Picturebook, Monsieur Jarry Cover; Right: At Jardin Majorelle, 1993
When Ohtake quotes from those etchings, their spontaneity and intimacy is merely hinted at, not successfully conveyed. The gap is also a matter of temperament. Violence, wreckage, anxiety, atavism, visonariness, punkish nihilism, teenage rebellion, surrealist automatism, nightmarish lusts—these are neither the phrases nor themes one equates with a master of distance like Hockney. Given Ohtake’s bristling at visual ellipses, refinement and formulae, Malcolm Morley and Tadanori Yokoo serve as more apposite models.
Left: Rubbish Men, 1987; Right: Bow with Hole (Shipyard Works), 1990 Photo: Shigeo Anzai
One can just about feel the protean echoes of these postwar expressionists culminating in Ohtake’s large scale sculptural pieces (the charred, turbid Rubbish Men or the elegiac Shipyard Works) and encouraging his tropism toward the deeply personal, albeit vulgar and hermetic, code, coupling or collage (the beekeeper-like silhouette, garish Gaudi mosaic and pastel landscape in EZMD). Thus the bravura passages in the present show have far more in common with the work of those recusant gate-crashers than with the graphic fluency that shapes Hockney’s cool, calm and collected divertimenti. With Morley in particular as a paradigm of pictorial turbulence, Ohtake can be cautiously measured against his neo-expressionist peers; so long as his mischievous sense of humor, hard-earned sense of compositional force, disregard for market pressure and relative lack of pretension are all taken into account.
Black Shindenkai, 1964
Returning in part to questions of insight, what lessons does one take away from this show? Ohtake may very well be an artist of Picasso-esque energies, as he layers, fuses and splinters style upon style, image upon image, medium upon medium, phase upon phase but he is also one of limited technical facility. This rousing contradiction makes his achievement tough to assess. Suffice to say that despite the artist’s convincing trials, despite this show’s panoramic sweep, at least formally speaking, there are no real moments of sublimation—though a few of the staggering sculptures, small-scale gouaches and colored pencil sketches from the 90s come close. Perhaps Ohtake is simply too restless, or too skeptical of his own talent, to invest in a good thing when he sees it. Almost as soon as he takes off, he starts to ramble. Nevertheless, this is a peculiarly moving show. Ohtake’s vital, eccentric, questing experiments, as well as his comparatively stilted approximations, provide object lessons in the inevitability of failure, the slim chances of success, and the equalizing virtues of sheer creative drive. That the curators were able to approach his vast oeuvre (that reportedly stretches into the quintuple digits) and attune his work’s fractious currents to arrange something like a coherent two-thousand piece show is a marvel of acuity in and of itself.