Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Year of Japan: UMFA edition.

This fall, I'm planning a trip to Japan.  I've already booked my plane tickets for September.  To prepare, I plan to familiarize myself with Japanese culture.  I've got several Japanese themed novels waiting to be read.  And I've bought my Japanese immersion software.  So imagine how excited I was to discover a small exhibit currently on view at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) with work by a Japanese artist. 

The show is called Decades and features the art of Yayoi Kusama.  I'd never heard of Kusama.  And considering her background, I feel that someone who spends as much time in museums as I do should be familiar with her work.  But maybe I'm just another white male who refuses to acknowledge the contributions of women to contemporary art; I hope not.

Here's what I learned. Yayoi is one of Japan's most important contemporary artists who's been working since the 1950s.  During the '50s she lived in New York City where she was friends with the likes of Donald Judd and Joseph Cornell.  In my defense, when she returned to Japan in the 1970s, Kusama was largely forgotten in the U.S., but since the 1990s she's received significant renewed attention.

All that background information is boring if you don't see her artwork.  Her art is a trippy, dazzling expression fueled by painstaking execution, with patterns that can make your eyes hurt, but in a good way.  I can't tell if this is Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, or some strange version of Op Art.  But however you categorize it, it's fun to see. 

The first painting I liked is Dots (2000, Acrylic on canvas), whose card notes that Kusama has struggled with mental illness since childhood.  And get this: She currently lives voluntarily in an institution for the mentally ill.  She still produces plenty of work at her studio where she employs several assistants.  Here is Dots:

Here's a detail from Kusama's mind-bending, large work entitled The Night (1985, Acrylic on canvas; triptych).  This just might cause hallucinations in those of us who aren't troubled by mental illness.

In the '60s, Kusama took pattern to a new medium.  She began to produce sculpture which consisted of household objects covered with bunches of small, stuffed fabric phallic forms.  The card for this work suggests that while these sculptures are playful, they also carry undertones of anger.  Maybe she's pissed that white, male art fans like me don't know enough about women, foreign artists.  I don't blame her.  Here is a detail from Compulsion Furniture (1962-63/1993, Sewn stuffed fabric, household objects, wood, paint):

And finally, here's an installation view from the exhibit featuring The Night and Compulsion Furniture.

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