We are very familiar with the industrial products of Japan--the cameras and cars and VCRs--yet other facets of contemporary Japanese society are virtually unknown to many Southern Californians. "Seven Artists: Aspects of Contemporary Japanese Art" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art liberates one aspect of contemporary Japanese life from that obscurity.
This thoughtful and compelling exhibition of 18 works presents a variety of media including painting, sculpture, and installation works. Although their materials vary and the character of each work is unique, the artists are united in the belief that art exists somewhere between a physical representation of an idea and nature itself.
"Western people see art as an end in itself," said Kazuo Yamawaki, curator of the show and the chief curator of the Nagoya City Art Museum. But for the Japanese, he said, art "is a channel to the world."
"Seven Artists is the first contemporary Japanese art exhibition in the Los Angeles area organized from a Japanese perspective," Yamawaki said. In choosing the artists for this show, however, Yamawaki said he did take into consideration two contemporary Japanese art exhibitions, "Against Nature" and "Primal Spirit," that were initiated by American curators and recently toured the United States.
"The artists in those exhibitions were primarily members of the younger generation showing new trends," said Yamawaki. "But there are many aspects of Japanese art, and I wanted to show the public something different. There is one artist from the younger generation in this exhibit, Chie Matsui, but most of the artists began their careers in the early 1970s and are well-known in the Japanese art world."
Lee Ufan emerged in the late 1960s as the theoretical leader of the Japanese "Mono-ha" ("school of things") movement. The primary aim of this movement is to communicate the nature in art. To convey this, Mono-ha artists installed organic objects such as charcoal or clay and unprocessed industrial materials such as plates of steel or glass in galleries in practically their natural state. In the Los Angeles exhibition, Ufan's oil paintings reflect the continuing development of his theories from the Mono-ha period.
Satoru Shoji works primarily with cloth because it has no shape or volume of its own. "He makes the object and the space, and to me it feels like the space of a Japanese teahouse," said Yamawaki. "It has the same kind of spirit."
Makio Yamaguchi, in his 60s and the oldest of the artists in the exhibit, chisels black granite, revealing the stone's nature. "His work is very minimal without special forms," said Yamawaki, "but when he cuts stones and polishes the surface, there are smooth parts and rough parts which remind us of the skin and flesh of human beings. In that way he makes us see ourselves in nature."
Ceramic artist Kosho Ito uses kaolin, a translucent material, to mold random, standing forms that are then fired at a high temperature. These pieces are arranged freely in a circle on the floor, suggesting a group of people or other living creatures.
Chu Enoki's performance art and his installations confront social issues of the day. In the Santa Monica exhibition, he displays machine-gun cartridges that express his fear of war as well as his fascination with the beauty of the cartridges.
Toshihiro Kuno concerns himself with the relation between objects and the environment in an installation made from vinyl, sand and rope.
And through materials such as plaster, glass, lead, brick, string and stucco, Chie Matsui, the one woman in the show, creates a space to stimulate viewers' visual and tactile senses rather than their intellects.
Planning for this exhibition began in 1987 when Noriko Fujinami, an independent curator in Los Angeles, was asked to coordinate an art exchange between the cities of Los Angeles and Nagoya. "I had organized an exhibition to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Berlin, a sister city of Los Angeles, for L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department," Fujinami said. "A member of the Los Angeles-Nagoya Sister City Affiliation saw television coverage of that show and called me to say his organization wanted to do the same thing for their 30th anniversary."
There was no money for the endeavor. The Los Angeles-Nagoya Sister City Affiliation is a volunteer organization without city funding. Fujinami eventually obtained initial funding from Los Angeles art collector Frederick Weisman for the art exchange. (Fujinami had been a curator for the Weisman Collection from 1975 to 1982, and knew Weisman had supported such cultural exchanges in the past.)
"His initial grant and his commitment were extremely helpful in getting subsequent funding for this show," said Fujinami. "After we received a grant from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission specifically for publishing the catalogue, we were on our way."
Fujinami then approached the Santa Monica Museum of Art about presenting the exhibition. In a spirit of cooperation common to cultural exchanges, Tom Rhoads, the director of the museum, was invited to Japan to meet the artists under consideration for the show and to be involved in the selection process.
"The artists in this exhibition are doing unusual work that has had no visibility in this community," said Rhoads. "A common denominator among much of what the museum does is to expose people not only to new work, but to new ways of working and to expand the boundaries of what people think art can be."
Seven Artists completes the exchange that was begun with the exhibition at the Nagoya City Art Museum in March, 1990, of works by John Altoon, Sam Francis, Craig Kauffman, John McLaughlin and Ed Moses. Abstractions/5 Artists was the first large-scale presentation in Japan of paintings by West Coast artists.
Beyond the exchange, though, Seven Artists has burgeoned into a traveling exhibition. Because the Nagoya City Art Museum has a sizable collection of paintings by Mexican muralists--Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo--and has presented exhibitions of other work from Mexico, Yamawaki made several trips to Mexico over the last few years. When officials at the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico City heard that he was organizing this contemporary Japanese exhibition, they immediately said they wanted to host the show in Mexico.
Interest from Mexico piqued the curiosity of The Japan Foundation, which was established in 1972 in Japan to organize international cultural exchanges. "The Japan Foundation wanted to fund the travel of the exhibition to Mexico," said Fujinami, "but they also wanted to take it to other museums in the United States that haven't had much exposure to contemporary Japanese art." After Santa Monica, the show will go to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Tamayo Museum and then to the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans with a catalogue that is in English and Spanish.
Six of the exhibition's seven artists arrived in Southern California a week before the opening to install their works. For most of them, it is their first time in the United States and they are concerned about how Americans will react to their work.
"In Japan, these artists are appreciated only in the art world, and it's a small world so they don't have much attention from the Japanese public," said Yamawaki. "If they are appreciated abroad, it will be very beneficial for them when they return to Japan."
"Seven Artists: Aspects of Contemporary Japanese Art" on exhibit at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through May 26. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Admission: $3 suggested donation. Information: ( 213 ) 399-0433.