Rediscovering the Joy of Japanese Art in London – The New York Times

August 22, 2022

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The Tokyo gallery A Lighthouse called Kanata is focusing on minimalism at Masterpiece London.
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For the Tokyo gallery A Lighthouse called Kanata, simplicity can be deep and nuanced, and is, in essence, what defines Japanese art. It can also be reinterpreted, since simplicity is uncluttered and inviting.
Such is the gallery’s inspiration behind “Simple Forms Revisited,” its presentation at Masterpiece London, which runs from Thursday through July 6. It is both an homage and a reinterpretation of a similarly titled exhibition, “Simple Forms,” from 2014-15 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in northeastern France, and later in 2015 at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.
Seven years later, the success of that exhibition, which was attended by more than 5,000 people each day during its Tokyo run, inspired the idea to feature Japanese artists exclusively in a reimagining for Masterpiece London. The pursuit of simple forms, which has always been a defining element of Japanese art, is in many ways an open canvas for fresh works and new audiences, the gallery said.
“Several of our artists were in the original exhibition, and now we are trying to revisit those simple themes and try to blend it with the gallery’s aesthetic,” said Wahei Aoyama, the owner and the curator of a Lighthouse called Kanata. “That show had many international artists, but we thought it would be more vital to represent that show in a contemporary Japanese light.”
Twenty-six pieces from 24 Japanese artists in the mediums of sculpture and painting will be featured, among them major names such as Sueharu Fukami (porcelain), Niyoko Ikuta (glass), Satoru Ozaki (stainless steel) and Kiyo Hasegawa (Japanese Nihonga painting). Whereas the 2014-15 exhibitions featured dozens of artists from across the planet working in various mediums, Mr. Aoyama, 42, sees this new approach as a way to celebrate how several Japanese artists blend the old and new when it comes to minimalism.
“For instance, Kiyo Hasegawa is reinterpreting the technique of ancient Nihonga painting into a contemporary minimalist style,” he said. “She only paints in abstract and minimal ways. This is very unusual. A lot of contemporary artists use the old techniques but almost always figuratively, which is its origins.”
Mr. Aoyama, who founded the gallery and curates all its shows, drew inspiration from the prior exhibition, but also from what he said was a current lack of appreciation for the beauty and elegance in the most basic forms. For him, it was a chance to celebrate a kind of quietness amid all the noise.
“Contemporary art in this day and age is conceptual, so there is no need for beauty, in a sense,” said Mr. Aoyama. “We want to represent a return to innocence of what art used to encapsulate. This art can stand the test of time. It’s not just a trend or a passing fad.”
Mr. Aoyama’s own journey to the art world might once have felt like a passing fad. He graduated from New York University in 2001 and earned a law degree from Oxford University in 2003, but a phone call from his father, whom he had not seen since his parents divorced 12 years earlier, changed his life.
His father had opened a gallery in Tokyo in 1993 and asked Mr. Aoyama to come work for him. Mr. Aoyama accepted, but he left the job after less than a year. After a brief stint in the corporate world, he opened A Lighthouse called Kanata in 2007, then moved it to the affluent Nishi-Azabu district of Tokyo in 2020. The gallery has sold works to more than 80 museums, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum.
The gallery’s name also has deep roots in Japanese culture. Kanata means “beyond” or “far away” in Japanese, and the lighthouse symbolizes guidance and illumination in troubled times, which weaves into the idea of reinterpretation, Mr. Aoyama said. This seemed like the ideal approach for his gallery’s return to Masterpiece London for the first time since 2019: a return and a reimagining.
A Lighthouse called Kanata’s Masterpiece London presentation “speaks to how culture is constantly evolving,” Lucie Kitchener, the chief executive of the fair, wrote in an email. “Art is continually rediscovered and reimagined, and the fair offers an opportunity to explore this across time, discipline and cultures.”
Two of the artists whose work A Lighthouse called Kanata will showcase in many ways embody the Japanese approach to timelessness and elegance. Ms. Hasegawa, 38, is known for her contemporary spin on the ancient Japanese art of Nihonga painting. She works with the traditional materials Iwa-enogu, which are mineral pigments, and washi, the handmade Japanese paper.
“I depict images that come into my mind, and when I face a Buddhist temple or see a landscape, they are abstract in my mind,” she explained in a phone interview from Tokyo. “These materials can produce subtle texture and add depth to a painting, but they are difficult to handle, and the preparation requires a lot of contemplation and concentration.”
For Ms. Ikuta, 68, a former jazz pianist, creating glass sculptures is not unlike creating music, particularly the spontaneity of jazz. This plays into the idea of minimalism, she said, as each note must be open to interpretation or a quick riff.
“With jazz, the improvisation of musicians performing together changes the music,” Ms. Ikuta said, “and although the music eventually ends, the emotions it leaves behind remain. Likewise, part of my inspiration as an artist is wanting to mix the same principles of lyricism and rhythm into my work.”
She creates her geometric sculptures by laminating minuscule strings of glass with adhesives that expose where the lines overlap and intersect. Her shapes can resemble a nautilus, an eyeball, lungs or a black hole, with delicate lines milling about.
Their facades are akin to cotton candy in their delicacy. Light sprinkles in from various angles.
Her glass works have been described as ethereal by more than one critic, a sentiment Mr. Aoyama echoed. The simplicity is what defines them as universal and timeless, harking back to the approach of celebrating simple forms in a timeless manner.
“She’s executing her musical rhythms into the glass and light because she’s manipulating light with 60 different layers of glass,” he said. “The way she does it is truly mesmerizing. You could show that to an Eskimo 200 years ago without saying a single word, and the work would strike his heart.”