Review: Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York @ Japan Society


Aya Uekawa's painting

Aya Uekawa’s uniquely stylized figurative paintings were a highlight of the show. (courtesy Aya Uekawa)

I went last week to the newly open exhibit at Japan Society entitled “Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York”. The last two exhibits I had seen at Japan Society were both amazing: Murakami’s “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture” exhibit (April 8 – July 24, 2005), which caused quite a ruckus among many in the Japan art world, and the safe but equally excellent “Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan,” which was on display from March 28th to June 17, 2007.

This latest exhibit is in the vein of the former, and I think attempts to serve a similar role for Japan Society as did the “Little Boy” exhibit: provoke while at the same time solidifying Japan Society’s place as one of the preeminent venues in NYC for Japanese contemporary art. The problem is that the quality is inconsistent.

Some exhibits hit right on target, and showed refinement of ideas and/or technique. Others do not, such as the amusing but not really museum-level drawings of Ayakoh Furukawa’s hamsters in “100 Ways to Torture the Innocent”. Aya Uekawa‘s strangely styled, caricature-like figurative paintings were a highlight, as was Satoru Eguchi’s giant recreation, all in paper, of an artist’s studio which you could walk through. Finally Yuken Teruya’s work was impressive and visually stunning, as usual, using the Japan’s Society’s bamboo garden as an essential part of his contribution to the show.

I think the idea for the show was a good one, but in the end it lacked cohesion and perhaps it was a bit too much to chew on. Some things were great, but nothing stood out or really blew my mind with its ideas or its execution. But Eric Shiner, the curator seems to be doing interesting things and I look forward to Japan Society’s next show.


5 Responses to “Review: Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York @ Japan Society”

  1. 1 Ayakoh Furukawa

    I happened to read your article on the Internet.
    And I am not happy with your comment about my work.

    You have to understand artist’s intention of the expression for particular work.
    Hamster drawings have to convey childlike innocence. The style I chose for 100 ways .. is sutable to the concept even though you say not museum level.

    First of all, what do you mean “museum level?’
    Is there anything like that? Do you mean craftmanship??. Artists are not craftmen.
    Simple craftmanship with beauty is the most meaningless as art.

    You’re supposed to be knowledgable to Japanese culture.
    I believe you know Japanese “Choju-giga?

    A part of my intension is to create something conveys Japanese tradition to use animal to tell irony in human life.


  2. 2 bb

    Naturally you feel upset. I understand. But as an artist putting your works into the public sphere, you should be prepared for all kinds of reactions to your work, and not just positive.

    As I said, although I thought your drawings were funny and cute and well done, for me (at that’s all I am speaking for here—- myself) they did not strike me as sophisticated or intellectually stimulating on a level beyond the first reaction of “cute”. This is what I mean by museum level, a work that offers a variety of interpretations and a depth of meaning. I didn’t get that from the hamsters.

    I also completely disagree with your statement about craftsmenship. I believe the idea of the anonymous artist made famous by Yanagi and others from the folk art movement, shows that works of high craftsmanship by anonymous, even untrained workers are some of the highest forms of art.

    This cute kind of format, however, is unfortunate because it furthers an already existing stereotype for a lot of Americans– Japan and the Japanese as “cute”. I wish Americans and other foreigners would get beyond this stereotype and artists like yourself should work to further complicate the image of Japan, not simply pigeonhole Japan and Japanese as juvennile or “kawaii”.

    About irony and the Choju Giga… Your work and the Choju Giga(鳥獣戯画) have little in common, it seems to me, and if your intention was to reference it, then it should have been done more explicitly either stylistically or thematically. There was no perceptible irony present in your work. What I learned in grad school about the Choju Giga was that is was social commentary on medieval monastic and aristocratic life. I didn’t see any social commentary in your piece about a hamster. There was no secondary meaning for me beyond the image. As I said, they were kind of flat, cute drawings, and said little to me about life. But maybe you can elaborate on your intended irony.

    I think it’s great that you try to explain your work, and that I respond back and we have this kind of conversation. I think it’s very important and it’s kind of rare to have this kind of exchange of frank opinions.

  3. 3 Ayakoh Furukawa

    My work has nothing to do with “cute” or “Kawaii”.
    I guess you might be allegic to cute animals. It is too easy to connect hamsters to “kawaii trend.”
    How long did you spend in front of my drawings?
    I am sure you are missing lots of information in my drawings.
    I needed fifteen months to complete the series. When I first met Mr. Shiner, I had only several drawings and I made them for myself, not to show others.
    My twisted psycology and sense of guilt over my pet hamser’s death made me draw torturing scenes. I tortured myself to make the drawing of torturing my pet.
    It was a very personal work first.

    Mr. Shiner though the idea was interesting and encouraged me to develop the series.

    I believe my drawings sit on the verge of(between) picture-book drawing and art. If they are a little more cute or a little more obvious, they become drawings for picture books.
    It was a very challenging process for me to develop these drawings.

    The series is all about life and death. I have 28 more and some might have a femminist point of view. Some have my direct feelings to the scene; some have a sentence behind the scenes.
    Some events actually happened.

    I do understand each work focuses on only one emotion and rather weak; that is why I made 100.
    100 is not a number to surprise people.
    I hope when you see 100 as the whole you understand more than cute.

    I am not making works for money and I have no format. I make work from my heart. It sounds corny, but it is true. I am not trying to be liked by people using the hamster.

    I can not use the style of Choju-giga in a strict way. The expression should be mine.
    My work has less to do with politics unlike Choju-giga.

    I think it is proper for me to keep the issue in the personal domain to make honest commentary with my hamster drawings.

    I use different styles such as my text/line drawings to express different concepts .

    I had heard comments like yours in the MFA program , but I was always upset.
    I should be! I am serious about my creation.
    You find my hamster drawings fake or shallow but they are made by a totally different motive.

    You have to open your eyes and remove all your stereotypes about styles and trends.
    Fake works are well-made , as good as the real thing.
    My hamsters are certainly not well-made as you say.



    BTW, Who is Yanagi?

  4. 4 bb

    柳宗悦 info is here:
    as well as elsewhere on the web.

    I don’t think there’s anything else relevant to say because we’ve hit a kind of wall. Obviously you feel the work had some deep meaning, and you’ve explained that, and I’m saying that as a viewer of your work (and one educated in art and Japanese art), I didn’t feel anything.

    So you can take that two ways: either I was wrong, which you seem to suggest, or you could see it as a failure on your part to adequately communicate your intention and then take the criticism into account. I fully realize this is difficult as the maker of the work, to take such direct and honest criticism objectively and unemotionally, but if your audience says they don’t get it, maybe you should listen.

    I want to say thanks by the way. I appreciate your courage to write back publicly and to explain your work, and I liked this exchange of views and opinions. I think it’s great for you to have a chance to respond and explain in depth your intention. And hopefully we can both take something out of this.

  5. 5 Ayakoh Furukawa

    Thank you.

    Last night I was thinking very hard about the hamsters drawings and a strange idea about Henry Dager came to me. I take this as one of my next series.

    Have a happy holiday season,

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