April 3, 2013

Art: Art, nature and the in-between

Exploring the origins of ‘GEN’

For someone who is energized by artwork rife with contemporary art references, there is big-city excitement in stopping by an exhibition space and finding conceptually strong work. This happened to me, walking north on Third, when I decided to stop in the Crane House. Without expectation, I entered “GEN,” Shohei Katayama’s solo exhibition, and upon leaving, my mind looped on the everyday conflict between life and nature, and how art can help us navigate that relationship.

Upon entering, visitors are faced with “Proximity,” a grid of turning stones centered on the floor, each square powered by its own set of solar panels. Leaning in, the viewer begins to see relationships between the rows. Each rotating top has one-to-five ceramic pieces, glazed black, looking like polished pieces in a game of Go. The outer row carries one stone, the second holds two, and so on. It’s a moving math problem a viewer is tempted to solve until realizing there is a variable that is completely out of our control as an audience: the sun.

Looking up from the floor, a three-paneled painting — white on black — swirls in what appears to be a weather pattern. “Uzu” is a clear nod to the work of Motoi Yamamoto, a contemporary Japanese artist Katayama cites as a reference. Yamamoto uses table salt and creates large-scale floor patterns, in some respects mimicking Tibetan sand mandalas. The outline, and its lack of crispness — because it is shifting sand for Yamamoto and oozing oil for Katayama — shows unpredictability, even in the most controlled environments.

“Presence,” the third piece in the room, holds court in the bay window. A mallet is provided for visitors to chime a tuning fork, bringing all of the work in the room together with sound and a vibration felt underfoot, underscoring the movement of the grid and motion of “Uzu.” Although the room contains three distinct pieces, they work as one and jolt viewers into recognizing interconnectivity.

Within the southern room, there is a video of the artist fishing local waterways. Under the screen are items pulled from the rivers, including a padlock, a Dramatized New Testament cassette tape, nails and a candy tin, all arranged under the video. The piece is similar to seeing a present-day photo of someone in a third-world country wearing a championship T-shirt you gave away 20 years ago. You begin to consider each object you’ve dismissed from your own life, and then wonder where it went. Tucked away in the back of the room, concentric circles of metal shavings make up “Balance.” Slivers move minutely, from one circle to the next, fueled by the low hum of a motor moving a magnet underneath the pedestal. Next to “Balance,” similar in size, is “Mugen,” a mirror without end.

Katayama’s compelling work is not only about the connections between nature and civilization, but how his work is involved within the larger art world. The three circles of “Balance” immediately bring to mind the work of Richard Long, the British land artist who rose to fame in the late 20th century, bringing nature into formal exhibition spaces, circles and lines of wood, bricks, mud and stones. Similarly, “Mugen” sits clearly in a long line of art infinity rooms, popular with artists in the late ’60s and early ’70s creating a spiritual effect. Yayoi Kusama — a Japanese artist who was a key figure in the ’50s New York avant-garde scene — employs the effect in her room installations today.

Upstairs, you can see older works of Katayama’s, clear indicators of how far he has come. There are grids of framed drawings, morphing forms crisply brought forward with a Sharpie. The monochromatic approach, and use of line, can be seen as the seeds of exploration, which would grow into the swirled weather patterns of “Uzu” and the stark grid game of “Proximity.”

Katayama is a resident artist at the Asia Institute — Crane House, and he is engaged in Asian culture awareness. Katayama’s artist statement for “GEN” says there are patterns in nature, and “these repeating elements govern the structure and organization of matter, they are laws innately responsible for the progress or entropy of human consciousness, population diversity, and the fluctuating rise and fall of cultures.”

For me, the show is about the feedback between art, art history, art-making, and the relationships between our individual lives, the paths we take and the impact those paths have within, and on, nature. The work is subtle and does what art should — it helps us to stop, consider and see.

‘GEN’ by Shohei Katayama
Through April 19
Asia Institute — Crane House
1244 S. Third St. • 635.2240


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