In Rhyme, Tenmyouya Hisashi renders a battle scene in two mirrored pieces.
One of the great things about art is how it can reflect not only an artist's own time and experiences, but also enter into a dialogue with the history of art itself. A single work can call to mind a whole web of images and allusions. That kind of rich, multilayered approach is what keeps you coming back to a work, always finding something new to admire.
I was reminded of this phenomenon while looking at Ikeda Manabu's work, on view at the Chazen Museum of Art through Feb. 16. The 40-year-old Japanese artist makes fascinatingly dense and complex drawings that reference Asian landscape traditions but present distinctly modern dystopias. Rather than offering a meditative world to get lost in, Manabu shows a world we might want to escape from -- a place where nature is not always kind to humans, and where humans may be done in by all of the technology we have created.
Manabu's work is visually arresting. He's even doing a long-term artist's residency at the Chazen, and viewers can watch him during scheduled times as he works on a massive, 10-by-13-foot drawing (see the Chazen's website for details). While I was wowed by his work in general, the showstopper for me in this exhibition is Victim from 2009, a chaotic scene in which taxis and a train are headed straight into floodwater, people are submerged in strange tanks, planes swarm like angry bees and snipers perch on rooftops. In this nighttime view of a global megacity, some elements are realistic, but the ultimate effect is surrealistic -- especially when you realize this teeming metropolis has merged forms with a giant, scaly, tongue-flicking serpent.
Other works -- like Manabu's Meltdown, with a huge, tumbling cluster of buildings, tubes and cranes -- continue the dystopian theme.
Shown alongside Manabu's work is that of another Japanese artist, Tenmyouya Hisashi, who also references Asian art traditions but to very contemporary ends. Hisashi plays with Buddhist themes and imagery, as well as traditional materials like gold leaf.
While only a few works by Hisashi are on display, they include major pieces like Rhyme, a complex battle scene rendered in two pieces that mirror each other. Despite its aggressive imagery of warriors, swords, spears and even white tigers and horses suited up for a melee, Rhyme presents (by design) a curiously bloodless battle. There are no wounds or spurts of red, and the smooth, idealized warrior is actually the same figure over and over, presented in different scales and poses. In fact, given the realistic-but-not-lifelike quality of the warrior, he reminds me a little of modern videogame graphics -- believable, but somehow drained of life. It is these "off," static moments in an otherwise dynamic scene that make Rhyme so intriguing.
Paired together, Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi offer a compelling glimpse into contemporary Japanese art. Museums are a great way to take a break from holiday hustle and bustle (and the relentless pressure to buy, buy, buy), and these are can't-miss exhibitions well worth your time.