Hong Kong

Izumi Kato, Untitled, 2017, wood, soft vinyl, acrylic, 74 1⁄4 × 17 1/4 × 19 5/8".

Izumi Kato, Untitled, 2017, wood, soft vinyl, acrylic, 74 1⁄4 × 17 1/4 × 19 5/8".

Izumi Kato

Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin

Izumi Kato, Untitled, 2017, wood, soft vinyl, acrylic, 74 1⁄4 × 17 1/4 × 19 5/8".

Most of the sculptural characters that Izumi Kato crafted for this exhibition (all works Untitled, 2017) have heads made of granite that the artist collected from the reclaimed landfill close to his coastal studio. He selected these pieces of rock for their shape and texture, which recall those of suiseki (decorative stones) or scholar’s rocks, and treated them minimally, attaching them to bodies made mostly from wood, painting them a variety of colors, and standing the results on simple wooden pedestals. (The artist made other figures from pieces of leather and soft vinyl, their “limbs” splayed out over small wooden tables.) Kato arranged a dozen of these stone-and-wood sculptures, in varying sizes, in a line against a deep Prussian-blue wall, where they stood like guardians of a tomb or temple, or even of another dimension; they were the first thing a visitor saw on walking into the gallery. The most monumental of these figures was one made entirely of wood, a larger-than-life-size, freestanding woman with brown hair, a deep-blue face, a light-blue body, and red legs. She holds a tray on which a group of small figures crafted of soft vinyl—with white bodies, yellow faces, and black dots for eyes—stand in a line. She seems to be a high priestess for whom the forms she holds and the ones that surround her are at once charges and offerings.

Here, the influence of the temples and shrines of the Shimane Prefecture, where Kato is from, felt tangible. His ambiguous figures recalled the silent presence of the sculptural deities that populate these sites. Similar to the suiseki evoked by Kato’s granite heads, they serve to create a formal link between the natural world, human existence, and the unfathomable totality that encompasses them. These are ambiguous bodies that straddle an indistinct line: They are at once natural and artificial, familiar and alien, contemporary and archaic. Kato uses color to play up this ambiguity, as is also the case in his paintings of similar figures, which the artist creates directly with his hands. One standing wooden figure is painted a deep turquoise, with the lines delineating the shape of the body—arms, breasts, legs—rendered a bright corn yellow, while her hair, painted onto her granite head, is a vivid volcanic red. In the sculptures, the grain of the wood and the texture of the granite remain visible beneath the painted color, whose vibrancy offsets the vacant, frozen, impassive facial expression each sculpture exhibits.

But these figures, in their somewhat cartoonish rendering as childlike avatars, also connect with another tradition—that of Japanese popular culture, and the plethora of anime and manga humanoids that have come to reflect the nation’s complex postwar psyche. This alternate reading, or inverse reflection, in which the classic and the spiritual are countered by an equal sense of the contemporary and deviant, creates a totality of sorts; the metaphorical swamp out of which Kato’s characters seem to have emerged could well represent the deepest recesses of an expansive personal and collective mind, both conscious and unconscious, at once particular and universal. Indeed, what separates Kato’s representations from the naughty girls of Yoshitomo Nara’s imagination or Takashi Murakami’s bombastic neo-Pop characters is the indistinctness of his bodies’ near-abstract crafting. These spectral projections, rendered in solid form, straddle many worlds. Their function is to elicit a sense of uncertain recognition and to serve as a point of unfixed contemplation.

Stephanie Bailey