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From the East, Contemporary Works for the West

Posted By Administration, Sunday, October 28, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It has been some years since a group show of Japanese artists made its way to the New York metropolitan region. Japanese artists have shown at museums and galleries in that time, obviously, but there has not been a concentrated look at the work of the generation born in the 1960s and '70s.

Youth dominates "Out of the Ordinary/Extraordinary," a powerful touring survey of Japanese photographers at the New Jersey City University Galleries in Jersey City. Of the dozen artists in the show, most are in their 30s and 40s. Some have shown in the United States previously, but others are being seen here for the first time.

I usually don't care much for national shows, which bunch artists of dissimilar temperaments under the rubric of identity; just because artists come from the same place doesn't necessarily mean that their work has anything in common. But "Out of the Ordinary/Extraordinary" is an exception, for what binds the artists here is less their national identity than their choice of medium.

The coincidence of this exhibition with a survey of Indian photography and video at the Newark Museum right now reminds us of something that has been apparent in the art world for a while: the most interesting contemporary art is being made in the so-called new media. Computers are responsible, for they have opened up a limitless word of digital image making and manipulation.

There is much digitally manipulated imagery in this show. Hiroko Okada's photographs, to pick one example, are of pregnant men, their bellies swollen and stretched. The men laugh and smile for the camera, like happy, expectant mothers. But they look weird and deformed.

Another artist who plays around with digital manipulation is Tomoko Sawada. Born in 1977 in Kobe, she is the youngest artist in the show. Her imagery is also the most recognizably Japanese, for she makes work about being a young woman in Japan. In one series here she dressed up as 30 different women and had her photograph taken in the style of the "omiai" portrait, which is taken before an arranged marriage to send to a prospective groom.

For another series of photographs, "Cover" (2002), Ms. Sawada dressed up in fashions favored by Japanese teenage girls in cities. She spliced the shots together to create a row of women pouting and posing for the camera, as if for a magazine cover shoot. Cindy Sherman comes to mind, but also the photographs and videos of Ms. Sawada's compatriot Mariko Mori.

Japan has a recognized tradition of informal street photography, little of which is known or shown outside the country. Working in that vein is Keizo Motoda, a young artist from Osaka who captures images of chaotic modern city life in Japan. His pictures have dynamism and a charge that is often lacking from work of this kind. He also has an eye for quirky scenes, like a lone old street musician on a street corner, or a man prostrate on a sidewalk.

Shizuka Yokomizo also engages in street photography, though of her own kind. She sends letters to people whom she has never met asking them to stand in a room of their house at a particular date and time, curtains open, facing the street, where she is ready and waiting to snap their photograph. If they do not agree, they do not appear in the room at the designated time and the artist walks away.

The photographs themselves are perhaps not as interesting as the project, for not surprisingly they show people standing, sitting or talking on the telephone in a dimly lighted room. Ms. Yokomizo has only 10 minutes to take her pictures under the rules of the game, and later she mails the subjects a copy of one of her prints. Other than this she has no contact with them.

The exhibition is split between two places, the gallery in the art school and another gallery in the university administration building, about half a mile away. It is not an ideal arrangement, dividing up what is essentially a solid, coherent body of work. It also precludes the sort of comparisons and contrasts that make group surveys like this interesting and inviting. But if the setting is less than ideal, at least the show is here, with plenty to enjoy.



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