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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese art critics living in Japan.

Painting Space: Nobuaki Onishi
Matthew Larking
nara+sugito
Installation view, nomart project space, 2007
noguchi
Installation view, nomart project space, 2007

The Renaissance discerned two kinds of sculptural modes: freestanding, three-dimensional sculpture, and more two-dimensional low-relief sculpture, like wall panels. Leonardo da Vinci weighed in on the second kind, acknowledging his essential concern: "the sculptor may claim that low relief is a kind of painting." Separating the values of sculpture from those of painting came to seem paramount, distinguishing the sculptural artwork as a physical object and not as a visual image.

Modern conceptions have often asserted the autonomy of sculpture operating in the real space of the world shared with the viewer, rather than the fictive 2-D space of painting. Nobuaki Onishi's (b. 1972) recent work is located in these general issues, and through a further contemporary installation arrangement in "Desktop, Dress, Gray" he draws on connections to Pop Art and Marcel Duchamp's "readymades."

In the earlier works from around 2004 in his "Infinity Gray" series, Onishi cast ordinary everyday items and painted them up with virtuosic flare to seemingly fool the eye into thinking that they really were those things. Goods were chosen from the lower ends of mass consumption, an example being "Suzuri (Ink Stone)" (2004), which is usually a highly expensive item in the repertory of artistic accouterments, and traditionally one of the "four treasures of the study." Onishi's mold, however, is taken from the meanest store-bought variety. The items in this series are smallish objects that can be grasped or casually shifted around, and their touchability is an essential part of their identity. "Pen," which is exquisitely crafted and perceptually almost indistinguishable from the real object, is obviously such a manipulable item, and "Gomutebukuro (Rubber Glove)" (2005) seems even more insistent on the point.

This tactility indicates material presence, but it is the subtle coloring that reveals the sculptural material itself. In each work, the highly realistic effect of surface coloring fades at given points so that the clear resin from beneath shows through, as in "Katorisenkou" (2004), a kind of incense coil, where the green acrylic fades out to clear unadorned resin at the outermost tip. The point is to leave the illusion incomplete, and perhaps to suggest immateriality in the opaque forms that become translucent.

These ideas are developed further in the "Dress" series in tandem with an enthusiasm for repetition. The pieces in "Dress" have their colors drained to grays, browns and blacks; gone too is some of the penchant for modest dimensions. The objects often have a found-object feel to them, like bones or barbed wire, and Onishi has said that objects were chosen for their absolutely plain quality -- for not being beautiful. "Shouha Burokku" (2006) is a hollow cast of the four-legged concrete structures conventionally placed along coastlines to protect them from erosion by wave movement. The four legs were originally cast from the same single-leg component and then combined, and there is a palpable resonance to another work, "Hone" (2006), where four identical bones are arranged side by side. With the tetrapod work the illusion also remains incomplete as the four legs have been left "uncapped" so that viewers can see inside the work to its smooth white interior.

The stony surface of "Shouha Burokku," rendered with immaculate literalism in proper proportions and correct techniques, suggests a kind of two-dimensional painting surface shaped into three dimensions, foretelling Onishi's most recent works in the "Desktop" series. Like some of Duchamp's readymades, Onishi selects his principal iconographic elements from commodity goods. The debt to Duchamp, however, seems most clear in the work "Syaberu" (2006), where a spade leans against a wall as Duchamp had done in 1915, naming the work "In Advance of the Broken Arm." And like Onishi's selection of objects, Duchamp had chosen his for their quality of "complete visual anesthesia."

The readymades were simply "chosen" from the world of mere things and hence the artistic "making" was abrogated. Onishi departs from that conception in that his pieces really are labored in minute detail. In "Desktop" works are cast only from one side of the object, such that they are delicate casings lacking the sturdiness of the original model objects. Through casting on one side, these pieces become all "surface" and Onishi emphasizes their evident "thinness." The seeming paradox is that these surfaces are akin to two-dimensional painted surfaces, although they occupy a freestanding three-dimensional real-world space. Cast sculptural surfaces conventionally enclose an interior, which, when opened to the kind of space gallery-goers percolate freely in as well, makes the sculptural surface appear more like one proper to painting.

"Desktop, Dress, Gray" is a seductive showing by a young artist whose subsequent artistic output will be much anticipated. The finer point of the exhibition this time around, with its engaging conceptual concerns and trompe l'oeil finishes, is that how objects look matters less than how they are looked at.

tanaka izumi
"Yushitessen" (2006), acrylic on urethane resin and epoxy resin, 35 x 37 x 4.4 cm
Installation view, nomart project space, 2007

All photos courtesy of nomart editions
Nobuaki Onishi: Desktop, Dress, Gray
nomart project space, cube & loft / http://www2.nomart.co.jp/news/index.html
10 February - 10 March 2007

image
Matthew Larking
Matthew Larking is an art historian based in Japan's old capital, Kyoto. He frequently writes art criticism concerning modernism and contemporary art in Japan and more broadly, Asia. His principal interests revolve around the development of modernism in the Asian context and its contemporary resonances.

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