Leiko Ikemura

Bonner Kunstverein

Leiko Ikemura is from Japan, but has been living in Europe—first in Spain, more recently in Switzerland—since 1972. She is profoundly influenced by her original homeland, and, if not as a believer, by the religions, customs, and myths of the Far East. She has not gone unnoticed in the recent attention given Swiss art, but her first one-woman exhibition in a public institution occurred not in Switzerland but in Bonn. What was largely lost in group shows was here precisely lit: an artistic bridge between East and West, executed more in terms of content than of form. And ultimately, Ikemura’s explorations go beyond subject or region.

Owing their appearance primarily to European painting but immersed in the graphic potency of Asian tradition, Ikemura’s figures and symbols—people, animals, plants, houses—roam through her work as if from a mysterious, distant world. Certain forms are less readily interpreted by Europeans than by Japanese: how can we, for example, know what the upside-down house or the fish on a pole mean in Japan? But it is precisely here that Ikemura’s rebellion against the rationalization and depersonalization of the contemporary world lies. Drawing on the reservoir of the unconscious, her symbols take part in a comprehensive dialogue about the symbols of life that goes beyond the subjective. Pictorial elements associated with regional customs and cults may lose their specific meaning outside Japan, but in Ikemura’s work they gain transcendent energy for the simple reason, among others, that the energy of such visual symbols is part of a universal human fund.

The idea of painting from the gut has caused all manner of mischief, not least the current widespread employment of symbols that have by now become thoroughly hackneyed. But Ikemura exemplifies what is best in the new painting’s protest against the deformation of sensuality. That these are intelligent works does not mean that they can be comprehended only rationally; Ikemura’s art reflects the spiritual concern of reconciling physique and psyche, body and head. In her physical sensitivity and her tenacious exploration of everything in painting, including possibilities already explored in the past, she exploits the potency of the medium more and more effectively. She can introduce poetry to her drawing, balance joy and pain in flat, gestural painting, and hint an uncanny menace by thickening figures into blocks that seem almost three-dimensional while remaining in the plane. The intelligence involved is not a rational one, but one that can locate and release the energy in painted forms.

Unsurprisingly, some of the forms involved have to do with Ikemura’s origin and sex. For there are indices of content in the work: erotic complications, the painful/comical fascination of cockfights (the bird is after all potentially invested with meaning for women as well as men—a challenge, raising symbolic possibilities of procreation and motherhood). But the narratives here are not complete. They remain elusive, vacillating between pleasure and pain, horror and comedy, and the attempt to identify them is an adventurous gliding between countless symbols and artistic possibilities. One thing, however, remains consistent: there is no firm ground here. Dance or plunge, wind or vortex, life or death—the boundaries are always flowing.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.