Oscar Oiwa

Oscar Oiwa, born in Brazil in 1965 to Japanese parents, exhibited Whale I and Whale II, both 1989, in the 1991 Bienal de São Paulo. By comparing the great mammal’s bones to the equally expansive top view of a nuclear-propelled submarine, this pair of twenty-one-meter images painted on kraft paper presents one of his basic themes, the kinship between the organic and the mechanical. The year of the Bienal, Oiwa moved to Tokyo, arriving just as the bubble economy burst. He later spent nearly a year in London, and in 2002 he relocated to New York, where he now lives and works.

This full retrospective of the peripatetic artist included some eighty works, among them many recent immense multipanel paintings. Banana, 1984, with Brazilian scenes on a meter-long banana-shaped board, reveals a talented young painter who would eventually work in many styles: surrealism, with uncanny juxtapositions of naturalistically represented artifacts, as in Crow’s Nest, 1996, with its large bird sitting above a construction site, and Noah’s Boat, 1997, depicting a boat within a city; the sublime, as in the Kieferesque Light in Final of Tunnel, 1997, with a hole in the center of the canvas; the realism of four pencil and charcoal drawings, Building 1, Building 2, Building 3, Building 4, all 2000, or White (Os)Car-Forest, 2000, a painting showing a car in a narrow Tokyo street. Oiwa has also made installation works, such as Dog=10cm3 Air by Day, 1994–95, in which a small dog’s breath fills a floating blue balloon, a neon sign spelling the title. A thirty-one-minute documentary video, Oscar Oiwa ARTIST 1995-2008, 2008, presents him bicycling through Tokyo and in his New York studio.

Oiwa shows city life going seriously awry. Two large paintings, Peace & War (Peace) and Peace & War (War), both 2001, first display a prosperous Japanese city, then the same place in ruins. Chameleon,
2004, with a lizard climbing on a branch, and the mechanical Monkeys, 1999, showing the urban environment turned back into nature, could be illustrations of J. G. Ballard’s novels. And nature itself can turn out to be unnatural, with living beings revealed to be mere machines, like the dog depicted in the five drawings on plywood titled X-ray of Hachiko, 1993. But one wonders if moving to New York has not left Oiwa seriously overextended. His beautiful Gardening (Manhattan), 2002, which superimposes an allover flower pattern on a view of the city, is perhaps too simple in its political implications. How, I wonder, can gardening resolve the dilemmas of 9/11?

Clearly Oiwa loves showing destruction—he is fascinated by collapsing buildings. “No matter where I go,” Oiwa says in the catalogue, “I have not actually gone anywhere.” Why does this well-traveled man, who uses colors and imagery from three very diverse cultures, say that? His art tells a different story. Compare the overly literal Fire Shop, 2005, with flags of many nations above a store and a fire hydrant in the foreground, to the great Whale, and it is obvious that this gifted artist has not yet discovered an adequate way of engaging menacing American cityscapes. Too often, his recent art is mere illustration.

David Carrier