Michiko Itatani

Marianne Deson Gallery

In three enormous pentagonal diptychs, each about 10 by 13 feet, Michiko Itatani unveiled a drama staged in the shadow of apocalyptic threat, a drama exploding with emotional impact and contemporary painterly ambition. This synthesis of art-historical poses and expressionist technique is not the facile recipe now widely offered for consumption; rather, it is a strange, highly personal palimpsest overlaying Itatani’s figuration on her earlier painted installations, which explored minimal programs with muted palettes and obsessive grids. Like sheets of driving rain, the earlier work’s fragile lines of raised pigment, applied with a hypodermic syringe, now coalesce in planar formations that are less the subject of the paintings than a counterpoint or foil for other pictorial activity. Previously, crisscrossing threads shimmered in irregular patterns whose trajectories, suggesting the movements of flying birds as well as the process of the artist, sometimes left their irregularly shaped canvases to attach themselves to the gallery walls. In this way Itatani made literal her spatial ambition to create a meditative place defined by painting. But now the artist has shifted her focus from repetitive ritual procedures, formal structures, and conceptual territory to a highly charged narrative interchange between figure and ground.

This figurative presence has been threatening the fabric of Itatani’s veils for several years now, and its provocative appearance cannot be rationalized by current art fashion. Indeed, the artist has explored narrative themes in writing and video projects. Two years ago she began to photograph and sketch from models to provide herself with an archive of postures and dynamic movements; yet the canvases here are not paintings of performers, but depictions of extreme states of being. All the works on exhibition show an inflection of symbolic content and a repertoire of classical heroic poses—contortions, outstretched arms, knotted muscles—of an intensity usually associated with Renaissance scenes of Expulsions and Last Judgments. That the three major paintings are predominantly orange, blue, and black respectively underlines their elemental symbolic capacity as fire, water, and air. In contrast, all the figures are modeled in monochrome, in what appears to be a dual reference to photography and to classic statuary; it also allows the artist to avoid the question of racial differentiation through pigmentation. Itatani’s desperate souls are ghostly apparitions arrayed against the materiality of the painted background.

All the paintings are untitled but related to Itatani’s written narratives. In a painting from the “Landing Practice” series, a woman crouching in the lower left corner raises her arm against an irresistible storm of paint which seizes and hurls two other figures to the top of the canvas, scattering an unconnected arm in its wake. One of the few figures to retain a sexual identity, she cradles or is consumed by a fire of red paint; her foot is almost brushed out of corporal existence. Similar bodies, radically foreshortened in a vast and turbulent atmosphere, struggle against chaotic forces or flee from some eternal curse in the untitled orange painting from “Mooring Mast.” Lacking heads and features, these nudes with exposed, vulnerable backs evoke the flood victims in Uccello’s frescoes in the Green Cloister of the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence, and, more directly, the twisting bodies of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.

Although this activity occurs at eye level, encroaching on our space (one angled diptych even takes over a corner of the room), the work’s foreshortening and skewed perspective evoke the spatial illusions of baroque ceiling decorations, dizzying illustrations of celestial wars and coronations. This architectural association explains the shapes of the panels; not just vestiges of earlier work, they are painted backdrops extending the confines of conventional easel-painting in order to determine pictorial and even behavioral arenas. Itatani’s protagonists—“blind, counting, floating,” as she titles a third series—are caught up in vapors of paint that threaten their very humanity. Buffeted by irrational forces which overwhelm them at the same time as they impress us, these figures authentically embody a human drama. Enacting a spectacle of body language that veers toward the demiurgic, the paintings significance resides not in their myriad associations but in the artist’s powerful statement of powerlessness. These shades still have some dignity even in extremis. Discomfiting spatial dislocation and dynamic gesture are held in check by the contrast with the methodical, repeated geometries of Itatani’s persistent patterns of threadlike pigment—delicate but strong safety nets. The calculated tension and esthetic risk in this conflation of motifs and styles give the work urgency despite and perhaps even through its awkward juxtapositions and discordant colors.

Judith Russi Kirshner