Ayae Takahashi

Bernard Toale Gallery

Japanese-born, Boston-based artist Ayae Takahashi reads between the lines of popular fairy tales, converting their messages into complex and personal hybrids of East and West. Part of an ongoing series of narrative work begun in 1998, the four small, intricate panel paintings (all 2001) in her second solo show, “Enciphered: Snow White,” reflect theatrical tableaux based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In diluted black alkyd on stark white gesso grounds, Takahashi references historic Japanese ink scroll painting as well as contemporary manga imagery. Borrowing devices from Japanese theater and decorative design, she fabricates an open-ended and provocative oedipal tale of the complicated relationship between daughter and mother in the guise of Snow White and the queen. Here the handsome prince is absent, the dwarfs have become tiny masked putti, and the moralizing has been suspended.

As in Noh theater, the emphasis here is on suggestion, a kind of approximation of reality with gestures and masks as signs. Upending the usual reading of the fairy tale, Takahashi assigns the stepmother figure the role of victim or martyr by giving her the horned mask of a stag (a sacred animal in Shinto iconography), while raven-haired Snow White wears a wolf mask, traditionally signifying cunning, ferocity, and unpredictability.

In Enciphered: Snow White #I, the stepmother appears almost like a figure in a bizarre Eden. Floating on a cloud, she holds an apple that sprouts from branches that grow from her mouth, and a tree snake wraps itself around her neck like a silk shawl. The second panel reinvents the magic-mirror scene as an S and M drama set in a landscape of stylized clouds and rolling diffs. The queen, her head shrouded in what looks like a Buddhist demon cape, is transfixed by the vision of a seductive Snow White in a grotesquely baroque mirror. A rope looped around the two women’s hips links them provocatively through the mirror. The queen grasps the deadly apple in her right hand and a paring knife in her left. A small gash in her leg and an open wound on Snow White’s back, which she bares while smiling coyly over her shoulder, imply an element of mutual pain and pleasure.

In the climactic panel Enciphered: Snow White #3, a monstrous three-limbed, multibreasted stepmother offers the poisoned apple to Snow White. Perched atop lotus flowers and accompanied by masked dwarfs, the two bear swords. Snow White holds the severed hand of her stepmother to her breast. In the final panel, a triumphant yet tearful princess in black high-heeled boots rides off on a toy white steed, cradling stag antlers and a Noh mountain-witch mask on her lap; the implication is that the daughter has killed the mother to attain her own mature identity. In an eclectic weaving of style and signs, Takahashi reveals the figure of Snow White as an idiosyncratic doppelgänger: The carousel horse balances on the back of a preteen Takahashi in pigtails and a kimono.

Takahashi’s efforts to connect manga style with pictorial conventions of traditional Japanese art ally her loosely with the superflat art of Takashi Murakarni and his Hiropon Factory. But unlike Murakami’s workshop fabrications and computer-aided designs, Takahashi’s delicately bed and shaded works are the product of laborious technique and psychoanalytic reflection. They are also far more personal and deeply thought-out hybrids of beauty and terror, in which there is no happy ending.

Francine Koslow Miller