PRINT December 1986


VISUAL ART ORIGINATED IN THE question of how to represent the things of the world, and its first means. as Sigfried Giedion pointed out through his analysis of cave paintings like the Altamira murals in Spain, was the contour, the outline. There ensued a whole series of concerns with the surface, color, perspective—the history of trompe l’oeil, of the simulacrum, of art as a metaphor for both the real and the spiritual. We might call this set of interests—highly abbreviated here—the first metrics of art. A second metrics appeared with the emergence of Modernism, when the visual arts gained a new dimension based on conceptual and critical thinking, and when they subjected the semiotic systems they had previously developed to a variety of reorganizations and deconstructions. At present, in the post-Modern, media era, these deconstructions have pushed art to flail toward infinite complexity Today’s painting, sculpture, and photography are full of signs and interpretations of signs, in a kind of zoo of meaning and meaninglessness. And perhaps a third metrics has been emerging simultaneously one that can he sensed from the number of contemporary artists who have begun to concentrate on the decorative surface. This has been an ongoing tendency since the early ’70s. It has run parallel to the other developments in contemporary art, and in the West has been noted particularly through work that has come to be known as “pattern and decoration” painting, as well as in much post-Modernist use of ornament in architecture. The decorative surface has been less noted as a feature in the “neo” isms of recent painting, although surface is clearly one of the prime subjects here too. (No matter how much topological and philosophical depth an artwork may have, if its focus is its surface, it also has a decorative function.) In Japan as well, a number of artists have been attempting to move decoration beyond decoration, with fascinating results.

Words like “decorative” and “surface,” with their connotation of “superficial,” are often given pejorative undertones, but perhaps this is something we should reconsider. Think of the body Despite the interior lives we all lead, our mode of communication is not internal but external. Even when sick with internal ailments (stomach upset, say), and thus unusually aware of what is going on inside us, we cannot explain our symptoms directly, but must communicate through words, gestures, facial expressions—all surface manifestations. We are very much accustomed, then, to the surface as a means of communication. But, as we know only too well, this has its limitations. Languages, gestures, and the semaphore of the human face are all conditioned by local semiotic codes. On entering a house in Japan. for example, we automatically take off our shoes; in the West, we leave them on, and to transpose either behavior from one of these places to the other would be to send a confusing message. Thus in the work of several Japanese artists who concern themselves with the surface we see a rejection of these regional sign systems. It’s not that signs are absent—indeed, the work may be abundant with them—but that sign is used to negate sign, gesture to negate gesture. The result is a canceling of traditional (or inherited) systems of interpreting content, and, with this, an attempt to cancel the limits and biases these systems imply.

Shinichi Hara, originally a computer engineer, first became known in the visual sphere through his bold designs for record jackets and other music-business materials. One of his graphics is an image of a domestic Buddhist shrine, a common sign in Japan, but here given a kind of cheerfulness that altogether detaches it from its usual implications of sublimity Two other relevant works of Hara’s, silk-screens made from drawings and printed on Japanese paper, both show a woman’s foot: in the first, the foot wears a laced wooden clog, and in the second, the cotton sock called the tabi, again worn with an encircling lace or tape twined around toe, arch, and ankle. Both clog and tabi are traditional Japanese footwear, but their function as signs in these pictures is denied by the fact that the lace is in both cases made of modern electrical wire. Here we see a Japanese artist using peculiarly Japanese signs in a depthless, surface way, and in juxtapositions that cancel out their usual semiotic connotations.

Like Hara, Yukimasa Okumura has also been recognized for his designs of record sleeves and rock posters, but he recently began publishing and exhibiting works that resemble traditional Japanese prints. Okumura has had long and thorough training in the classical techniques of Japanese art, and his scheme here is to combine them with traditional European iconography in a “superficial” device borrowed, and greatly modified, from American Pop art. A picture from his book San-Sun Saifu (The notation of brilliancy, 1986), for example, showing a handsome young boy in ornate helmet and armor, could almost have been painted in the last century but for the contemporary magazine the boy clutches, the modern uniform whose collar peeps from beneath his costume, and the Byzantine church in the background. Were the Utagawa school of ukiyo-e to be revived today after we’ve all seen Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982), Okumura would be at the heart of it.

Satoko Masuda attempts a freer, more abstract use of the surface than either Hara or Okumura. This 24-year-old artist is still little known, even in Japan. She is a botanical fantasist, converting plant forms, with their generative power, into chaotic flows of energy Masuda’s canvases reject quadrangular regularity, seeming to long for unconfined, extravagantly decorative shapes. Looking at them closely, however, one comes to feel that their goal is not so much escape from boundaries as boundaries themselves, limits. For Masuda is aware of the dangers of superficiality, of a decorative art of the surface. Yet she also believes in the potential of such art to counter the effectiveness of ingrained orders. Like Hara and Okumura, she incorporates signs from historical Japanese culture in her work—certain elements of her paintings recall the cherry blossoms and sense of movement in Japanese art of the Heian period, which ran approximately from the 8th to the 12th century A.D.—and like them too she undercuts these signs, removing their old content. Her titles reinforce her plant references: Auricula, 1986, is the name of a kind of primrose, as well as translating from the Latin to mean “small ear,” suggesting a petal or leaf form, and Kulyptogamia, 1985, is a variation on cryptogamia, the botanical name for ferns, mosses, and other vegetation that reproduce without putting forth flowers. It was unclear to 19th-century botanists how such plants perpetuated themselves, and so a name was coined that reflected the mystery: its sources are the Greek words kryptos and gamos, for “hidden marriage.”

Hidden marriages, secret relations among signs stripped of their usual meanings, are the stuff of the work of these three artists and others like them, who may have nothing in common but their firm rejection of conventional messages. Their surface decorations reveal a condensed profundity, and give hope that an art oriented neither nationally nor simply toward the self may be coming to birth.

Seigow Matsuoka is the editor-in-chief of object magazine YU, and a freelance editorial director who lives in Tokyo.