Los Angeles

Tomoo Gokita

With their watery, atmospheric grounds, china-blue hues, and organic yet somehow robotic forms, Japanese artist Tomoo Gokita’s sixteen new canvases mark a striking shift forward in the artist’s style. Whereas the works in his 2007 show at Honor Fraser retained a distinctive figuration—painted black-and-white bodies lifted from lingerie ads, 1970s yearbooks, and porn magazines, and portraits of Mexican wrestlers and geishas, all of which were partially consumed by anxious, repeating brushstrokes—the artist has now loosened his grip on unequivocal source material, allowing a minimal abstraction to consume entire compositions. Blank Frank (all works 2009), for example, is a simple arrangement of two lightly painted kidney or lung shapes (an umbilical appendage growing from one) hovering over an inverted dark blue mound; floating to the left of these forms, a more geometric series of brushy lines punctuates the otherwise anemic field. Rendered with hard lines and runny washes, the forms on other compositions are similarly organlike—recalling a pelvis, a tumor, the ventricles of a heart—yet remain imprecisely nonfigurative.

Honor Fraser wisely chose to exhibit these canvases in natural daylight, without any artificial lighting. Otherwise abated by the intensity of tungsten, the bluish palette of this series was vividly illuminated in the flat LA light. (On my second visit to the show, a rainstorm had not only blacked out the sun but knocked out the gallery’s power, leaving the works surprisingly sharp and radiant in the foggy near darkness of the space.) In raw, natural light, the works’ patches of more painterly textures thrust forward from blue-white backgrounds; a piece like This Misunderstanding, say, revealed thick, raised strokes of white quietly accenting the bulbous cloudlike forms of the foreground. The titular “misunderstanding” might arise when trying to distinguish an isolated brushstroke from a compound arrangement or a corporeal representation from a weightless abstraction.

The strong forms and brushstrokes that characterize this group of paintings can also be found in Gokita’s earlier work, linking the artist’s past experiments with Expressionism, Op art, and Surrealism to his new and quiet mode of abstraction. While nonrepresentational marks have long crept into Gokita’s pictures, these forms now take center stage, a shift that demonstrates the artist’s attention to technique before subject matter. Happily, Gokita’s more abstract works are no less sexual than his overt, cartoonlike paintings from the previous ten years of his career; they are, however, more coded. Sweetest Little Show, one of six small canvases hung in the second gallery, is not explicitly erotic. Yet installed in close proximity to the most corporeal and representational of this series, Eating Pleasure—in which a large pair of lips balances atop a curvaceous and nearly imperceptible body with gartered leg forms and what could either be a corset, a long scar, or a vagina—the lanky and swollen shapes in Sweetest Little Show begin to take on a suggestive aura: a little bone machine ready to perform some bawdy act.

One could draw a convincing comparison between Gokita’s new paintings and those of the mythic LA painter John Altoon, as both artists’ oeuvres include whimsical, sexualized pictures that resonate with their more “serious” abstract canvases. The automatism, stark backgrounds, and playful, organic gestures of Altoon’s “Ocean Park” series of the early ’60s, for example, are directly related to his sexually satiric drawings and paintings produced at the same time—fantastic scenarios of bestiality, dismembered sexual organs floating in space or perched on spoons, ads for mundane household products recast as titillating narratives. Likewise, Gokita’s seductive use of color and fleshy form evokes the aggressive women, revealing undergarments, and detached body parts depicted in his small, intimate paintings. Perhaps this balance between nonrepresentational and near-explicit imagery—as well as the free associations drawn from Gokita’s abstractions—subsumes the “Heaven” that gives the exhibition its title.

Catherine Taft