Shinro Ohtake

Tokoro Gallery

In 1987 Shinro Ohtake mounted a “comeback” show following a three-year absence from the gallery scene, and startled the local art world with the breadth and fertility of his imagination. He exhibited dark, evocative canvases, in which the splattered painterly values frequently assumed as much importance as collaged printed matter (pornography, product wrappers, comic strips, and postcards) and objects (scrap metal,driftwood, and stones). Though the straight paintings exhibited remarkable drawing skills, the work was perhaps too wild, too predictably expressionistic (the dead meat, the howling faces). In general, however, Ohtake’s imagination defies readymade designations.

Ohtake has his share of detractors, who consider him merely “trendy,” and accuse him of quoting from too many up-to-date sources. Though these objections will probably continue to haunt him, in the meantime, Ohtake has presented a show of wholly unexpected work. The new pieces fall into two groups: a series of pure painterly works entitled “America,” and works that incorporate photography. “America” consists of 18 large gouache-stained canvases. The colors are mellow, but the staining is dramatic, and the details sensitively drawn. Though they were made in New York during a three-month visit, one wonders if they were informed at all by his experience of American culture. One must assume that the references or meanings are private. While this work may again seem fashionably derivative—a sort of punk Abstract Expressionism—in Japan it might well strike the viewer as wholly traditional. These paintings evoke ink landscapes, details of kimono fabrics, or handmade paper. More importantly, they belong to the realm of dream: murky colors float before one’s eyes, and noxious liquids meet, blend (or refuse to), creating patterns that deny any overall design. Ohtake’s works, from the collage books to these paintings, reveal a willingness to let an element of chance inform the work. Though his methods may feel comfortably surrealist, the work remains fearlessly personal. Imaginative energy holds sway here, even while a very sophisticated formal sense is always evident.

In the new works, Ohtake draws on unexposed Polaroid film. Treating the emulsion so that the colors spread haphazardly, he then covers the photo in clear liquid plastic. In places the finish is smooth and in others it is rippled like stitched flesh. Many of the large works are held together by strips of cloth tape (inviting again a quibble over sources: some cite the Starn Twins, the artist cites mummy wrappings). Squiggles of ink (looking like computer-chip wiring) suggest a private, perhaps automatic, handwriting. Yes, these works are more lurid, violent and active—the other side of the “American” coin.

Arturo Silva