London

View of “Shinro Ohtake,” 2014. From left: Radio Head Surfer, 1994–95; WEB, 1990–91; Retina (Left Eye), 1989–91; Retina (Right Eye), 1989–91; Retina (Wire Horizon, Tangier), 1990–93.

View of “Shinro Ohtake,” 2014. From left: Radio Head Surfer, 1994–95; WEB, 1990–91; Retina (Left Eye), 1989–91; Retina (Right Eye), 1989–91; Retina (Wire Horizon, Tangier), 1990–93.

Shinro Ohtake

Parasol unit

View of “Shinro Ohtake,” 2014. From left: Radio Head Surfer, 1994–95; WEB, 1990–91; Retina (Left Eye), 1989–91; Retina (Right Eye), 1989–91; Retina (Wire Horizon, Tangier), 1990–93.

Visitors to the 2013 Venice Biennale will remember Shinro Ohtake’s numerous scrapbooks in the lower level of the Central Pavilion. Displayed in glass cases, these open tomes radiate charm through their density of accumulated colorful papers. Each is as much an expression of mass and obsessiveness as it is of collage technique. Ohtake’s first comprehensive UK show focused primarily on his series “Time Memory,” 2011–14, and also included works from his series “Retina,” 1989–94; “Frost,” 1989; and “Cell,” 1989–90. Like his scrapbooks, the works in this exhibition suggest a combinatory mentality akin to that of 1960s bricoleurs such as Robert Rauschenberg, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, or Bruce Conner. And like those artists, Ohtake addresses the accumulation of matter through collage and assemblage and by evoking time’s passage.

Just one volume of his scrapbooks was on display here, Scrapbook #66, 2010–12, and instead of being open with its contents displayed, it was closed (though bursting at the seams) and sat stoically on a plinth. With a lizard- and crocodile-skin cover that extends out like a tail, it is as much a sculptural object as a book of collages. About three feet wide and weighing nearly sixty pounds, it has a larger-than-life quality; in less literal ways, that is also true of Ohtake’s other work. For example, Retina (New Tong of Tangier I), 1992–93, a large, wooden, cabinet-like structure consisting of two levels, each with three sections, is covered entirely and densely with found photographs and little pieces of paper culled from magazines and newspapers, predominantly images of people, and objects, including a red lightbulb, numerous plastic flies, and one real one. The result is a reliquary-like object suffused with abjection.

In contrast to Rauschenberg’s Combines, in which there are often clear points of focus, Retina and many of Ohtake’s other works show a dispersed, allover treatment of the surface. Leo Steinberg, who coined the term flatbed picture plane to describe Rauschenberg’s approach, once wrote, “I tend to regard the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.” Likewise, Ohtake’s pasted picture plane diffuses the gaze across its surface rather than adhering to the up-down vertical axis of the focused traditional image. This sense of horizontality is even more evident in Time Memory 11, 2011, in which different kinds of paper (for instance, cardboard, rice paper, and wrapping paper, in predominantly brown and neutral tones), set mostly at right angles, create a sense of stratification that is at once vertical and horizontal. One feels that Ohtake’s horizon, particularly in the “Time Memory” series, could unfold endlessly like a computer matrix. This matrix grid is perhaps emblematic of culture. And yet his organic way of adding matter suggests he does not conceive nature and culture in opposition, as Steinberg did.

Ohtake says his work has to do with the “joy of pasting” rather than anything “to do with producing artworks.” The word collage is a more “western concept.” The artist continues: “I’ve been interested in ‘pasting things on something’ since I was a child. . . . It’s more instinctive, more impulsive” and has to do with taking “debris” and “putting it in a new context, and admiring it as something completely new.” The accretion of matter often seems to reach a point of mania, whether a gentle and ordered accumulation, as in the more recent “Time Memory” series, or a more intense and unruly obsessiveness, as in the earlier Retina. Ohtake takes the ephemera of life and transforms it—a cultural endeavor whose raw nature reaches a point beyond civilization.

Sherman Sam