“EXODUS V: Aesthetics in the Political”

The Elixir of Ataraxy in a Sea of Trouble

Image courtesy of WhiteBox Harlem

For nine long months the United States has been facing severe distress from the coronavirus forcing the closing of galleries, museums and art centers in New York City. But WhiteBox Harlem continues to independently operate as a community engaged nonprofit venue, a beacon for art lovers for 22 years despite facing numerous crises over the years. Over two decades, it has nurtured many outstanding artists in New York City and abroad, continuing its mission as an experimental center for experiencing new art with social èlan. 

“Exodus V: Aesthetics in the Political” is an exhibition curated by New York-based Kyoko Sato. This remarkable curatorial creates new metrics putting under scrutiny a diverse, singular group of 17 contemporary expat Japanese women artists aged 31 to 84 who chose to emigrate to New York to continue and expand their careers in a less constrained atmosphere than back home. Due to the increasing number of practicing female artists in the art scene in the past 30 years, art museums in Western countries have begun to have many feminist inspired exhibitions awakening the public’s attention to this voluminous subject. Most exhibitions tend to emphasize the inequality between men and women, or talk about women’s sexuality openly such as women’s awareness of the autonomy of their bodies. Time and again, some of these thematic shows unfortunately become cliché. In the spirit of finding a differential, I was quite curious to see how “Exodus V” may be different from many of these other women’s exhibitions I have witnessed.

Image courtesy of WhiteBox Harlem

At the opening reception I went through the entire exhibition and interviewed several of the exhibiting artists. I must confess my experience and exchanges observing the whole affair felt like an awakening stream of fresh water, particularly when seen from the perspective of Japanese culture with its delicate, innate view of the world. In the extremely sensible and variegated works at hand, each artist seems to earnestly pursue self-realization, purely or in fusion with its acquired surrounding ethos, all the while immersed in the chaotic cauldron of present day dis-United America. In their works, these artists seriously employ their most genuine spirit seeking honesty and truth in their aesthetic interpretation. In the exhibited works one does not sense the misconception of Japanese women coming from a biased world, neither one hears resentful voices towards ‘men’ being expressed whatsoever. What really struck was the artists’ utter perseverance hinting in their works decisive, intimate and private characteristics emblematic of the female artist. 

Overall, these works reflect a deep respect and pursuit of ‘oneself’ imbued with a longing for making art directly from the heart. Like dream-chasers they are keen in observing—through a great variety of mediums used—their rich, complex inner universe availed of a gained notable fusion of asymmetrical elements culled from both, East and West cultures. In the midst of New York’s mumble-jumble, their works express the tranquility and the spirit of symbiosis with nature that the Japanese culturally seek through Shintoism. However, and perhaps due to all of the artists being ‘first generation’ expats, I sensed a bit of self-restraint in various works, an experience that could be interpreted—on the surface—as being more constrained in terms of free expression than their Western colleagues. On the whole, in my view, they remain poetically ‘Japanese’ in expression carrying on a sense of their homeland cultural aesthetics intact. For example, the perfection in craft and highly decorative aspects in Japanese culture are given agency in many of the artworks in the exhibition, inclusive of the use of colors in Ukiyo-e (a genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries; its artists produced masterful woodblock prints and painting) that remain tangible excepting a couple of artists in the show which made me decide to address for the rest of this review.

Image courtesy of WhiteBox Harlem

In considering the connection between this exhibition and the current rather celebratory post electoral political atmosphere in New York, the most representative work of perfect binary cultural-aesthetic fusion is that of Tamiko Kawata’s, senior artist, who at her meritorious age of 84 uses long pantyhose installation art to express hope for the political chaos of the Trumpian era. In her new works being exhibited at WhiteBox she is portraying the ideal of racial harmony aiming at opening a forum where to discuss a utopic society. No matter the gender, age, color of race, she trusts every artist can achieve living in peace and harmony. This notable multicolored massive installation work welcomes the visitor to the show as the first frontal piece hanging from a large wood panel wall measuring 8 by 12 feet. Mrs Kawata employs dozens of pre-owned pantyhose donated to her by friends and admirers. The myriad combination of colors and sizes of white, black, yellow, red and so forth, may symbolically express our surrounding mixed race, old and young citizenry, folk in her ideal symbiotic society respecting each other and succinctly developing their own conundrum. The colors and composition in this work are quite dynamic and dramatic, priming your imagination to experience a flow and awareness of total racial harmony. Her other pantyhose wall piece “Salute for Colored, 2020” emphasizes issues of “Black Life Matters” where she uses an overlap of mostly black crawling spread out stockings in organizing a twelve foot high tree-like shape thrown against a bright orange wall, at the very top of the work, reaching the ceiling, two red and blue pantyhose pieces in wide open arms form represent the Republican and Democratic parties’ colors akin to the US flag. There is a celebratory undercurrent in this work as if suggesting the day this land will finally be able to achieve equality and racial harmony inclusive of all colors and ethnic groups. In our conversation, she introduced me to her creations with a sense of great hope. She is full of imagination, passion, and great expectations; betraying her age, she embodies a most youthful self.

The other work that stirred my passion is by Yukari Edmitsu, born in 1970 she represents the younger, middle age generation in this exhibition. Her work, more westernized than most of her colleagues, is a large painting in the mode of late Abstract Expressionism-meets-Color Field. Her brush strokes are eloquent, full of pride and confidence. The spectacular colors she boldly uses such as red, green and hot pink with black and white jitter blush lines, create a deep sense of enthusiasm in me. From my interview with her I know that she was inspired by the works of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning. Their distilled influence alongside her love for astronomy and philosophy makes for her rather peculiar and personal visual expression. In the beauty and boldness of her work each color and line endows emotional, epigrammatic shouts winning my heart over.

Image courtesy of WhiteBox Harlem

The exhibition takes place at WhiteBox Harlem and features Asako Iwasawa, Aya Uekawa, Chié Shimizu, Junko Yoda, Kayoko Nakamura, Kazuko Miyamoto, Keiko Miyamori, Kunié Sugiura, Kyoko Hamaguchi, Maho Ogawa, Minako Iwamura, Momoyo Torimitsu, Noriko Shinohara, Sachigusa Yasuda, Tamiko Kawata, Yoko Toda, and Yukari Edamitsu, and runs through December 6, 2020.