Michiko Itatani

Deson-Saunders Gallery

Michiko Itatani’s vertiginous paintings do everything but actually spin, setting up disorienting and cacophonous rhythms. Maelstroms of shifting pictorial fields that pile up to touch the parameters of chaos, they reach as near to centrifugal speed as paint and canvas is likely to get. Writhing human figures are always at the actual center of Itatani’s dizzying orbs of matter, and are painted in brushy tones of gray, black, and white. They may be of indeterminate gender and have their faces averted, but they confront a rather specific dilemma—they are always shown spinning uncontrollably in a constricted space. These dervishes respond to no laws of gravity or logic; instead they wriggle in perpetual limbo, the naked denizens of some astral Last Judgment from which there is no release. Their ball-like form is extrapolated by Itatani into a polygonal prison, which is itself then set loosely adrift in a circular field set into yet another polygonal shape and so on, until the human figure is wrapped within five or six layers of a kind of psychic disenfranchisement.

In Untitled (all works 1993), a decahedron-shaped canvas posits an uneasy ride for the repressed figure at its center. Alternating zones of a star-filled cosmos and a webbed area of striated paint (applied by the artist with a hypodermic syringe) describe its circles of confinement, its perpetual Sisyphean spin through the universe. An octagonal piece suggests sweeping arcs that can move from one zone into another, but these are unable to break the chains of insularity. These surging, shifting spaces, extreme physical embellishments, and tortuous foreshortenings create an ambience that used to be called Baroque, and Itatani shares that movement’s predilection for dramatic and theatrical effects. Motion is all here, incessant movement always straining at the multiple edges that try to contain it.

Itatani evokes these places, these curious mixes of the claustrophobic and the infinite, to present a model for some of her ruminations on the human condition. Like some astrologic symbology gone expressionist, her charts of the heavens are peopled with souls as much in the grip of chaos as the universe itself. Splintered worlds and rapidly shifting zones become the uneasy backdrop for splintered beings, fragmented personas, and rapidly shifting bodies—the cosmic becoming physical and corporeal, and vice versa. Itatani titled this series of works “Virtual Pair,” in reference to the concept from quantum mechanics that describes how seemingly disparate systems are related. But the kind of raw logic that the starry sky can represent is never quite reached by the humans that are contained within it: in Itatani’s work it is the people that are finally most dissonant, bound by their bodies to lesser orders of being, flailing helplessly in worlds beyond their ken. The interrelationship she describes here is one of personal chaos within “natural” chaos, dysfunction within disorientation, and it appears unlikely that these circles and/or polygons will ever be broken. The irregular shape of these paintings begins to reflect the existences within them—asymmetrical beings generating asymmetrical constructs. Itatani sets these juggernauts into intense pictorial motion—into areas that seem beyond resolve.

James Yood