Japan Society Gallery explores the continuing generative power of Japanese popular culture in Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints (March 9-June 9, 2013), an exhibition juxtaposing contemporary works of art with nearly 100 historic ukiyo-e woodblock prints drawn from one of the world's great collections of "pictures of the floating world" at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA).
In showcasing approximately 30 works by ten International Artists who either draw inspiration from the ukiyo-e artists' style, technique, or engagement in popular culture, Miwako Tezuka, the newly appointed Director of Japan Society Gallery, has recast the exhibition, which comes to New York from the MIA, where it originated earlier this year. Dr. Tezuka will feature different contemporary artists than those shown in Minneapolis, as well as the iconic ukiyo-e prints.
True to the chic, playful aesthetic of culture in the Edo period (1615-1868), Japan Society Gallery is commissioning AIKO, a graffiti artist based in Brooklyn, to create at the entry to the exhibition a wall-size mural that pushes her tough, urban, pop sensibility while referencing traditional ukiyo-e motifs. Other present-day artists selected to participate are Emily Allchurch (London), Paul Binnie (London), Hatakeyama Naoya (Tokyo), Ishii T?ru (Saitama prefecture), Kazama Sachiko (Tokyo), Tomokazu Matsuyama (New York), Narahashi Asako (Tokyo), Jimmy Robert (Brussels), and Masami Teraoka (Hawaii).
The Edo period was a time of great change as both artists and printers in the city (now called Tokyo) labored to satisfy the appetite for the new among a rising class of townspeople. Although color woodblock prints became affordable enough for almost everyone, low cost alone did not account for their immense popularity. Rather, as artists experimented with dramatic compositions, they also began to introduce audacious subject matter. "The subversive quality of ukiyo-e made these prints absolutely irresistible," says Tezuka. "I see the contemporary artists we are focusing on as descendants of Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro, and more of the great ukiyo-e masters represented in the exhibition."
One of Edo Pop's themes is images of Beauty, which is explored in juxtapositions suggesting that the role of provocateur was as familiar to ukiyo-e practitioners as it is to artists today. At the beginning of the exhibition, AIKO's pert, liberated 'grrls' and a number of other images of women will be placed in close dialogue with sensual and fashionable ukiyo-e depictions of female entertainers and denizens of brothels-including Kitagawa Utamaro's Love for a Farmer's Wife (1775-96), in which a languorous beauty with a swan-like neck very discreetly allows her kimono to fall open at the breast. A stencil print created by the London-based artist Paul Binnie in 1994 will also appear in this section, through which the viewers will gaze upon the beauty of the male physique. Binnie's noir-ish print will be placed near a vertical woodblock created more than a century and a half earlier by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Kuniyoshi's masterful rendition of a carp (koi) swimming upstream in a waterfall reappears as a carp tattooed onto the arm of a muscled young man in the contemporary print and enhances the erotic aura of the subject.
A section about the realm beyond the ordinary includes ghosts, demons, mythological figures, and legendary heroes often played by Actors-ukiyo-e artists delighted in animating all these subjects, narratives, and more. The Brussels-based artist and choreographer Jimmy Robert has created an installation in the form of a table with scattered photographs that appropriates a theatrical quality of ukiyo-e images and actor prints' intense focus on the actors' gestures. Referencing the theatrical composition of Jeff Wall's A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), Robert carefully positions sheets of photographs on and around the table as if blown in wind. Each photograph depicts a moment when his collaborating Butoh dancer twists her body as if reacting to the sudden gust of wind.
Further into Edo Pop, a section devoted to the Joy of Life highlights how the latest fashions, makeup, lacquers, ceramics, clocks, and pipes, as well as rare flowers, fish, and even pets figure in the worldview of ukiyo-e. Just as Edo-period artists cast their curious eyes on everyday life, contemporary artists are bringing a comparable visual inventiveness to their attempts to capture the vitality of life today, especially as manifested in the street and youth cultures of neighborhoods like Williamsburg or Bushwick in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn-based artist Tomokazu Matsuyama, whose neon bright, super-charged pop paintings will be featured in the exhibition, is among these emerging talents.