PRINT January 1986


REGRETTABLY IT SEEMS TO ME that in general Japan takes up the rearguard of the feminist movement, and it is still not off the mark to think of contemporary Japan as a man’s country. Nevertheless, since the late ’70s, work by women in cultural areas has finally come to assume a degree of prominence, which is a notable achievement in such a male-dominated environment.

At the Tama University of Art, in Tokyo, I used to hold a seminar called the “T Seminar” which planned and produced an exhibition each fall. Several years ago, during a discussion about what theme the next exhibition should take, the group was startled by a telling proposal from one of the women participants, who suggested the theme, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” This, of course, is Alice’s declaration near the end of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). In the section just before Alice wakes up from the dream that takes up most of the book, she is brought to a peculiar sort of trial, where all the people are playing cards, and the sentence is arrived at before the verdict. As she is about to be beheaded on the order of the Red Queen, Alice blurts out, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” She has been ever-so-patient with this ever-so-abnormal world, but finally she can’t bear any more, and delivers her pronouncement like a biting wind of lucidity In consequence, of course, she is attacked by the whole pack of cards, and wakes up. I believe that my student’s use of Alice’s words was a metaphor expressing her female perspective on the rules of the world of art.

There is no point in hiding the fact that at one time my eye for an artwork would have been jaundiced had I known that its creator was a woman. I remember writing some 20 years ago about the elegant abstract paintings of a certain woman artist. In a discussion of the work premised on gender stereotypes, I said that a difference as fundamental as that between trees and fish separated men and women. Contemporary hindsight, of course, elucidates the fallacy behind this remark, which depends on a confusion between nature and culture, between biological differences and purely social ones. Perfectly good paintings were being subjected a priori to unexamined definitions and assumptions around the idea of “female.” This was the period when cliches such as “men think with their heads, women with their wombs” were still popular, to the distress of many women (and of some men, too). The slapping-on of labels such as “feminine taste” and “women’s intuition” was prejudice of the same kind and era. In the culture they created, men perpetuated the hegemony inherent in these terms, attempting to sequester women in a biological ghetto and so to deprive them of the capacity and the channels to create. Any woman free enough to escape this structure was viewed with enormous suspicion.

It was with all these biases that I gradually began to discover women’s potential for originality It happened through encounters with particular individuals. Meeting Elko Ishioka was an important factor in my changed thinking; since the mid ’70s Ishioka has been putting out a bold message about women—a message of humor and moments of pain—through her series of advertising works for Parco, a large Japanese retailing enterprise. Her television commercials, book designs, posters, and art direction of Issey Miyake’s fashion shows communicate the strength of women’s presence, and demonstrate the increasing force of fashion and design as mass-cultural means for the expression of new selves in opposition to the old, repressive order. My revised attitude occurred in the context of the rise in opportunities for women to break out of the molds in which they had been cast, and to express themselves, produce works of art, and reach a public. The women’s movement and the writing that has been published about individual women’s struggles, developments that were both cause and effect of this feminist progress, are to be credited with a gradual opening-up of the social role of women.

Looking at young artists’ exhibitions in Japan over the past few years, the work I have found most interesting turns out to be largely by women artists. Kyoko Iwase, Chie Matsui, Yumiko Sugano, Tomoko Sugiyama, Hitomi Uchikura, Michiko Yano, Naoko Yasuda, and Mika Yoshizawa, all in their 20s and early 30s, are some of the artists who have recently come into prominence. Most often, these women’s work is wall based or takes off from the wall, and incorporates a wide range of materials in collage—cloth, paper, acrylic, or tree resin, for example. The artists are bricoleurs whose easy ongoing flow of imagery professes a certain youthfulness, in which it revels, and which gives it license to innovate.

I have mentioned too many artists to discuss all of them in detail, but one or two examples may give an idea of the overall trend. The work of Yoshizawa, the youngest of the group, seems effortlessly to distill found vulgar ordinariness so as to give it a kind of transparent quality Yoshizawa began by painting concise, fLuid representations of everyday objects; then, escaping the restrictions of the canvas, she started making scribbled, signlike images not only on walls but on the actual surfaces of such objects—a refrigerator, a door, a Ping-Pong table, a cupboard, a television, even a car. She has also baptized some of the tidbits of daily life, such as candy boxes, cigarettes, ashtrays, and cassette tapes, by dousing them with graffitilike lines and colors. It is indicative of Yoshizawa’s self-awareness and sense of irony that she prefers to describe her work not as art but as “grammar school picture-making and handicraft” She claims no privilege of seeing beyond the mundane to some higher sphere, but cheerfully demonstrates the vacuousness, at once bland and opulent, that surrounds us and to which we are usually blind. Her recent works are collages of large cut-paper shapes arranged on the wall in such a way as to resemble automobiles or giant fish. Yoshizawa’s line shows great freedom and élan, and it is punctuated by restrained bits of color and small affixed objects. The semitransparent tracing paper that serves as the ground diffuses the hardness of the wall and the focus of the lines, suggesting a peculiarly incomplete sense of the world.

Yano produces reliefs of, among other things, boats and figures swept by huge waves, which seem to surge along the wall and spread out over the floor. These forms are not represented realistically, and the sea appears as a kind of metaphor for an ever-changing formlessness, an unfolding syrupy chaos. Yano uses all sorts of materials—paper, wood, clay, bronze powder, different kinds of paint and crayon—and the physicality of these different media takes over from the puppet-show quality of her stage set–like scenes; imagery and narrative content fade into it like shadows. While continuing to make scroll-shaped reliefs, Yano is introducing a new dimension to her work by separating it from the wall and making it stand free.

The work of these artists does not constitute an easy return to painting and the image after the visual austerities of the minimal and conceptual art of the ’60s and ’70s. It is personal and private in certain ways, but in its interest in the imagery of the culture at large, it is also historically aware. This is true not only of Yoshizawa and Yano, but of Iwase, with her sad, junk-filled, bomb-site-like environments; of Matsui, who creates installations incorporating paintings, wood constructions that lean against the wall, fabric hanging from walls and ceilings, and scattered objects such as a plaster table; of Sugiyama, who makes brightly colored, pseudoritualistic, altarlike works out of cardboard, stone, and cotton; of Sugano, whose circular canvases display images of metaphorical constellations, imaginary maps, and such, and who also makes loosely arranged wall installations of mesh and wire; of Uchikura, who cuts and paints flower-shapes out of cardboard and mounts them in collage against the wall; and of Yasuda, whose vividly colored reliefs of, for example, fish, flowers, and alligators are also applied to the wall.

Yasuda has said that she regards conceptual and minimal art as “a clean surgical chamber devoid of even a speck of dirt:’ It is notable that she and the other bricolage artists under discussion grew up as the audience for this ”surgical chamber“ art, an art in striking disparity with the social environment in which they matured, with its lavish displays of consumer objects and its constantly disgorging mass media. Experience of this environment is a given in the art of these women, forming a kind of implicit contract between artist and viewer. In the usual course of making a painting, an artist constructs an image on the blank, vacant ground of the canvas—tabula rasa; Yasuda and her peers use a ground that is not blank to start with, but is suffused with the graffiti of everyday life. This is not to say that the work is an unmediated series of short-circuited associations with the visual substance of the everyday Its fabric of fiction sets it well apart from minimal art, but the artists have fully absorbed minimal art’s analysis of surface and its consciousness of materials. Furthermore, the bank of imagery they draw on is not simply adapted like a readymade from existing representations abroad in the culture, but devises its own fictions through which to meander into appearance. With its intimate vulgarities and nonchalant utopianism, one might say that this is ”the Frolicsome Surface." The works are like dreams stolen on a hot summer day, images from the hazy cloud world that passes before one when one is half asleep.

Are these women, with their clear-eyed grasp of the mundane details that make up the commonplace visual world, politely but firmly turning away from the male culture toward something else? They remind me of Alice, who wanders through the brewing absurdity of Wonderland only to pronounce her verdict, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards.”

Yoshiaki Tono is an art critic who lives in Tokyo and teaches at the Tama University of Art.