Tamotsu Ikeya

Tamotsu Ikeya’s most recent, aptly titled show, “Basic Lesson Preparation and Review,” indexed both the artist’s earlier investigations of color and his current (and evolving) interest in actual space. Ikeya put these lessons to use attempting to conceptualize color as a means of generating space. The first glimpse of the gallery’s vast interior presented a pair of large untitled two-tone canvases (all works 2009)—one red and orange, the other blue and green; ten more paces toward the back wall opened up a view of a third painting (the same dimensions as the first two and also untitled) in black and green. Its overlay of streaky waves is texturally different from the drip-and-smear surface of the other two works. Still, the juxtaposition of the three canvases created continuous space through color. Another arrangement of three large paintings (all untitled, 2009) imbued each of the works with new spatial meaning, absent if they were to be viewed separately—their adjacent placement emphasizing their varying planar depth. Even the array of small canvases on the back wall had its proper space as a kind of summary of the large canvas called Dispersion, the only vaguely representational piece on view, in which a cluster of yellow and orange lines suitably radiates outward from a sunlike hub of light.

Ikeya’s large-scale paintings combine impasto brushwork with pigments applied straight from the tube and allowed to drip down the canvas; the small pieces can be so high in relief that they effectively cross the line between painting and three-dimensional objects. The latter contain between one and three colors, layered to build rectangular protrusions or applied in contrasting textures that alternately resemble torn bits of oil-saturated cloth, gummy dribble, or hastily spread cake icing. In the context of this exhibition, the small canvases—like magnifications of fragments sculpted in actual oil paint—reiterate the physical nature of the works’ medium and support. They exemplify what the Russian formalists termed “baring the device”—the revelation of formal structure over and above iconographic or narrative reference. With all but one piece in the show untitled, Ikeya eschews most external associations, zeroing in on the processes and results of painting; and although the background of several works features a pattern resembling a tightly wound-up string, the neat coils are but an evidence of painterly praxis. The string’s precursor was a 2006 construction of what looked like cord made of oil paint—a mundane object later subsumed into a painting.

In a Japanese art world still dominated by Takashi Murakami’s superflat oneiric fantasies and now, increasingly, by the escapism and insignificant gestures of what Midori Matsui has dubbed Micropop, Ikeya comes across as a neo-formalist, perhaps overly focused on the structure of painting and oblivious to postmodern pressures. Although his works bear the characteristics of the good old modernist expressive withdrawal—they are hermetic in content, exploratory, and focused on their medium—Ikeya offers a novel twist on the familiar modernist trajectory. The paintings in his latest show seemed animate, if not sentient—their melting and molding pigments caught in a deceptive stasis, seemingly poised to resume their viscous progress even in the absence of the viewer’s gaze. As they negotiate the finite area of the canvas, the tiny misshapen drips, textural smears, and triangulated coiled furrows face off in a spectacular painterly match. (Spoiler alert: The drips and smears appear to be winning, at
least for now.)

Julia Friedman