Yukio Nakagawa at the Koyanagi, Ginza Art Spaceby Monty DiPietro
Too often, Japanese art gets divided into two neat categories: Old, and New. Infrequently do the denizens of Tokyo's formal art world step out at the city's hot new galleries to see the latest installations, and rarely do the movers of Tokyo's contemporary art scene venture into the drafty Ueno museums for those institutions' traditional arts exhibitions.
Luckily, there are exceptions to every rule. And if one were to chose Japan's most consistently impressive artistic anomaly of the last generation it would probably have to be the multi-disciplinary Yukio Nakagawa, an 82 year-old man perhaps best described as this country's premiere avant-garde Ikebana artist.
For those of us who know Nakagawa and for anyone who may be new to his work, this is an excellent time to check in on the artist, who has an ambitious two-gallery exhibition now on at a couple of good spaces on Tokyo's Ginza art strip.
Thirteen new photographs and several works in glass make up the show at Gallery Koyanagi. There is a wide range of styles in the flower studies, fragility of course in many of the big, full-toned prints, but also powerful treatments of the bound and bleeding pulp that is the by-product of a tulip factory found in a couple of rich, unsettling pictures which recall Soutine's beef carcasess. Most of the pieces are studio shots, with a wonderful exception being the artist's installation of flowers photographed in a swift current of the Nakatsu River in Kanagawa Prefecture.
A five or ten minute walk down Chuo Dori, at the Ginza Art Space, is the 20th of Nakagawa's annual Homage to Shuzo Takiguchi exhibitions, a series Nakagawa began the year following the poet Takiguchi's death in 1979. This is a fierce and adventurous onslaught of an installation featuring about a half dozen olive trees marooned in the gallery space, the roots bundled in burlap and balanced on a mess of painted rubber inner tubes. This is where nature disconnects, and the work asks whether our society shouldn't perhaps pay more respect. The trees in this show are destined to find a happy ending, however. After the exhibition they will be returned to and replanted on the southern Japanese islands they came from, and we'll never see them again. Our beloved Tokyo boulevard trees, meanwhile, are doomed to decorate our Omotesandos, and suck smog for the rest of their days. Kind of makes you wonder what "beauty" is all about.
True to Nakagawa's wide appeal, the two gallery opening parties last week attracted all sorts of people, from pierced boys with blond hair, to the most unsmiling of collectors and art crust, to old women with blue hair.
Art in Japan struggles in a fragmented, non-community that knows few men with the vision of Yukio Nakagawa, and while it would be fine if more artists were able to cross the divide of New and Old as effectively as he has, the system does not encourage this. For years, Nakagawa worked as an outsider, finally receiving his first major art award (the Oribe Grand Prize) only last year.
Anyway, something in the intense but impish Nakagawa's demeanor suggests that the fight for recognition never preoccupied him, that he never sought his rewards from officialdom, but found them rather in the simple act of creation.
Until July 23 at the Ginza Art Space (3571-7741) and until July 29 at the Koyanagi (35611896).