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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture, and design exhibitions at art museums, galleries, and alternative spaces around Japan.

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image image Spores No More: The Shiga Museum of Art Sprouts Anew
Colin Smith
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The newly renovated Shiga Museum of Art amid the greenery of Biwako Cultural Park. Photo by Yosuke Ohtake

The Shiga Museum of Art has reopened after four years of renovations. Formerly the Shiga Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 1984, it has been rebranded (dropping the "Modern") to reflect a broadened collection. In addition to modern and contemporary art from Japan and overseas, plus Nihonga (Japanese-style painting), it now includes Art Brut (a.k.a. Outsider Art), an area of expertise for incoming museum director Kenjiro Hosaka as well as one with strong links to Shiga Prefecture. The museum was refurbished by Osaka-based creative unit graf to welcome a wider audience, particularly families, with a café/shop, multi-purpose lab and pop-up gallery on the first floor, a kids' space and family room on the second, and chic lighting and furnishings.

The museum marks its long-awaited relaunch with Voice-Over: Reverberations of the Museum, an exhibition of 167 works from the collection, ranging in genre and era from the oldest work it possesses (the 16th-century Kano School folding screen pair Celebrated Places in Omi) to new videos and installations by guest artists produced for this exhibition. Among shows of works from permanent collections―a frequent event at many of Japan's public museums―this is truly a standout, excellently curated by Ayumi Watanabe and richly exploring its "voice-over" and "reverberation" themes with such juxtapositions as pairings of guest artists' new works with older art from the collection, creating resonances like the overlapping voices of multiple speakers.

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Kano School, Celebrated Places in Omi (16th century), right screen of a pair of six-panel folding screens. Omi is the old provincial name of what is now Shiga Prefecture.

The show begins with a room of paintings by Yuki Ogura (1895-2000), a Nihonga painter from the region who was instrumental in the museum's establishment. Her crisp contour lines of nearly uniform color and weight, characteristic of Nihonga, become bolder and accompany refreshingly loose patches of color in later compositions. They recall some of the works of Matisse and Picasso, and seem to connect to the vibrant abstraction by Arshile Gorky in the next room. Ogura's Listening (1974) weds traditional and contemporary: a woman in kimono kneels next to a small portable cassette player, staring off into the blank violet space surrounding her. The neo-tribalism of Moon (1965) echoes works of Art Brut in subsequent galleries.

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Yuki Ogura, Moon (1965). Later in the long-lived Ogura's career, she increasingly pushed the boundaries of Nihonga.


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Arshile Gorky, Untitled (Virginia Landscape) (c.1943-44).

The second section focuses on landscapes of various kinds, from folding screens to abstractions to the large, joyous oil paintings of self-taught artist Shisuko Tohmoto (1913-2005). Her overflowing tableaux of nature, childhood memories and local customs, in a medium and at a scale uncommon for so-called naïve art, are charmingly labeled with her age, which was quite advanced in the case of the works shown here. Meanwhile, Twelve Scenes of the South (1943/1948) by Sanpu Ibaragi (1898-1976) is an unusual example of a folding screen with scenes outside Japan, in this case somewhere in the South Pacific where the artist was dispatched during World War II. It resonates thematically with a pair of nearly concurrent works, the huge, stunning cut-paper pieces Oceania, the Sea and Oceania, the Sky (1946) by Henri Matisse (1869-1954).

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Henri Matisse, Oceania, the Sea (1946), is one of a set of two with Oceania, the Sky, displayed side by side.

No artist embodies "daily creation," the theme of the third section, like On Kawara (1932-2014), who made it his subject as well as his process. A group of five works from his iconic Today series (1966-2013), in which he precisely hand-painted the day's date on a monochromatic canvas every day, reveals the variety in thousands of paintings that can appear uniform in reproduction. Though all black, his color of choice, each one is a different shade; all are horizontal rectangles, but in varying sizes; and dates are in the language of the country where the painting was made, producing anomalies like 28 OTT. 1990 (evidently made in Italy).

Process and repetition also characterize the meditative works of Lee Ufan (b. 1936), a foundational figure in the late-1960s and early-1970s Mono-ha (the "School of Things"). His From Point series involves making brush-dabs until the paint fades, and then reloading, resulting in infinite sequences of subtly varied marks, minimal yet warmly organic. Shin'ichi Sawada (b. 1982), among Japan's most highly esteemed outsider artists, is a native of Shiga, a prefecture known as a pioneer in recognizing and promoting Art Brut, as well as one of Japan's top regions for Sawada's medium of ceramics. Covered with the artist's signature spiky protrusions, his droll yet fearsome kaolin-clay creatures -- often with multiple faces and tiny tentacular limbs unfurling from their small yet somehow monumentally hulking bodies -- exert magnetic power belying their size.

 

Shin'ichi Sawada, Untitled (date unknown).

 

Standing Fudo Myo-o and His Two Acolytes (13th century, Important Cultural Property). The halo of flames is absent from this exhibition due to its fragile condition.

Chiyuki Sakagami (1961-2017) is another outsider artist who employed a tirelessly repeated pointillistic technique, generating biomorphic abstract swirls and dots in extremely fine blue pen, with titles like From the Memory of Precambrian that express her personal internal narrative. In a section titled "A World of One's Own," these share a gallery with three typically exquisite boxes by Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), containing assemblages of some of his trademark objects -- a clay-pipe soap bubble set, astronomical diagrams, and small wooden balls standing in for heavenly bodies. These interact interestingly with The Wave Theory -- Through Intaglio, a series of geometric yet painterly abstract prints by Mitsuo Kano (b. 1933) with vivid, chaotic colors that place them in opposition to the Cornells, but sharing a concern with cosmic themes, as the title indicates. A wall of primarily red-pencil drawings on cardboard by Masao Obata (1943-2010), a prolific Art Brut practitioner, is delightful, featuring his recurring theme of a beatific family as well as flowers, fruit, fish, ships, trees, and a schematic map of Japan with a tiny blob labeled "Australia" off its coast and two large unlabeled forms (superpowers?) on either side.

In another gallery various approaches to line come together, including one of many paintings Gutai Art Association member Akira Kanayama (1924-2006) made using a remote-controlled toy car. A lush canvas of wavering pearlescent-white strokes by Hi-Red Center member Natsuyuki Nakanishi (1935-2016) and an "infinity net" painting with similar palette by Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) make an especially masterful pairing.

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A triad and a trio: 13th-century Buddhist statues of Fudo Myo-o and two acolytes (seen with flaming halo in the photo above this one) are exhibited with three action paintings by Kazuo Shiraga. Photo by Takeru Koroda

A highlight of the exhibition is the powerful "voice-over" of three ferocious action paintings by another Gutai member, Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008), who famously painted by sliding through thick mounds of paint while hanging from a rope, and a 13th-century wood-sculpted standing triad of the fierce Buddhist deity Fudo Myo-o (Acala) and two acolytes. View any of Shiraga's three canvases through the glass case containing the statues, and it's hard to believe they weren't meant to be together (one painting is titled Fudoson, a name applied to temples venerating Fudo Myo-o).

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Yuichiro Tamura, Silence in the Mist. His installation deals with themes, such as death, that connect Andy Warhol's Marilyn and Electric Chair series. Photo by the artist

The show concludes with three projects for which guest artists engaged with works in the collection or with the museum itself. Yuichiro Tamura (b. 1977) took on a formidable room of prints by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) from his Marilyn and Electric Chair series, which evince Warhol's remark in a 1963 Art News interview that "everything I was doing must have been Death." Tamura's silent two-channel video of rushing water is overlaid with closed-caption dialogue relating to the Marilyn Monroe film Niagara, and an intermittently lit neon sign reading "AC/DC" hints at a hidden connection: hydroelectric power from a waterfall used to run an electric chair? In the next room, a glass-enclosed rest area overlooking a traditional Japanese pond garden, is a different and very welcome kind of electric chair, one that gives you a massage along with the message as you read the Marilyn- and Niagara-related text faintly printed on the glass and gaze at the view beyond (no time limit, provided there aren't others waiting!).

Mien Nakao (b. 1980), both an artist and a trained conservator, set out to reproduce the painting Nude by Yuki Ogura (see above), which was lost in a hotel fire. During her research, Nakao discovered Ogura's surviving Sketch for Nude, displayed here along with a picture scroll of ink-painted illustrations and text documenting the process of reproducing the lost painting (laptops and folks in face masks bring a contemporary touch to the traditional medium), pigment sample charts, texts, sketches, a chronology, a newspaper reporting on the 1969 fire, and the centerpiece, Nakao's remarkably authentic copy of Nude.

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dot architects, A Record of Four Years at the Museum (2021). The installation compares the museum's ongoing activities during its closure to the unseen operation of fungal networks.
Photo by Takeru Koroda

Finally, dot architects, an architectural unit based in Coop Kitakagaya, a studio complex in industrial western Osaka, presents A Record of Four Years at the Museum documenting ongoing activities of the Shiga Museum of Art during its extended closure. To quote the section introduction, "It was our intuitive sense that the closed museum resembled a mushroom . . . [Mushrooms] emerge from a network of hyphae that spreads through the ground, trees, and fallen leaves. The part we see is known as the fruiting body, and the hyphae . . . diffuse their spores and expand the ecosystem." This metaphor is rendered visible in a spacious, naturally lit room containing a wall of photos, towering stylized mushrooms of polystyrene foam painted in Pop colors, and handmade wooden tables displaying archival materials from four years of workshops, outreach, loans of works, traveling exhibitions, publications -- the "spores" of the dormant museum, which has now sprouted again from the fertile loam surrounding Lake Biwa. Printed matter is paper-weighted with an extensive array of life-sized mushrooms, lovingly crafted from colorful felt or yarn on pebble bases, which look quite biologically correct. As it turns out, dot architects developed a yen for mushrooms during this project and made mycological forays into the mountains of Shiga.

A museum staff member was not sure whether a pleasant fragrance delicately wafting throughout the museum, which brought to mind the hinoki cypress wood often used in baths, was from these handmade tables or just a figment of the imagination. Be that as it may, one emerges from the Shiga Museum of Art into the verdant surrounding park reinvigorated, further indication that the museum's lengthy reboot was well worth the wait.


All images courtesy of the Shiga Museum of Art.


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Voice-Over: Reverberations of the Museum (in Japanese only)
18 September - 14 November 2021
Shiga Museum of Art
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Colin Smith
Colin Smith is a translator and writer and a long-term resident of Osaka. His published writing includes the travel guide Getting Around Kyoto and Nara (Tuttle, 2015), and his translations, primarily on Japanese art, have appeared in From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents (MoMA Primary Documents, 2012) and many museum and gallery publications in Japan.
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