Rediscovering the joy of Japanese art in London

For Tokyo gallery A Lighthouse called Kanata, simplicity can be profound and nuanced and is, in essence, what defines Japanese art. It can also be reinterpreted, as the simplicity is unsophisticated and attractive.

Such is the gallery’s inspiration behind Simple Forms Revisited, its show at Masterpiece London, which runs from Thursday until July 6. It is an homage to and a reinterpretation of a similarly titled exhibition, Simple Forms, from 2014-15 at the Center 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 run in Tokyo, inspired the idea to feature Japanese artists exclusively in a re-imagining of the London Masterpiece. The pursuit of simple forms, which has always been a defining element of Japanese art, is in many ways an open canvas for new works and new audiences, the gallery said.

“Some of our artists were in the original exhibit, and now we’re trying to revisit those simple themes and try to mix it with the gallery’s aesthetic,” said Wahei Aoyama, the owner and curator of a lighthouse called Kanata. “That show had a lot of international artists, but we thought it would be more important to represent that show in a contemporary Japanese light.”

Twenty-six works by 24 Japanese artists in the mediums of sculpture and painting will be on display, among them such big names as Sueharu Fukami (porcelain), Niyoko Ikuta (glass), Satoru Ozaki (stainless steel) and Kiyo Hasegawa (Japanese Nihonga painting). . ). While the 2014-15 exhibitions featured dozens of artists from around the world working in a variety of mediums, Mr. Aoyama, 42, sees this new approach as a way to celebrate how some Japanese artists mix old and new when it comes to for minimalism.

“For example, Kiyo Hasegawa is reinterpreting the ancient Nihonga painting technique in a contemporary minimalist style,” he said. “She only paints in abstract and minimal ways. This is very unusual. Many contemporary artists use the old techniques, but almost always figuratively, which is its origin.”

Mr. Aoyama, who founded the gallery and curates all of its shows, took inspiration from the previous exhibition, but also from what he said was the current lack of appreciation for beauty and elegance in its most basic forms. For him, it was a chance to celebrate some kind of calm amidst all the noise.

“Contemporary art nowadays is conceptual, so there’s no need for beauty, in a sense,” Mr. Aoyama said. “We want to represent a return to the innocence of what art once encapsulated. This art can stand the test of time. It’s not just a trend or a passing fad.”

Mr. Aoyama’s journey into the art world might once have felt like a passing fad. He graduated from New York University in 2001 and received a law degree from Oxford University in 2003, but a phone call from his father, whom he hadn’t 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 agreed, but he quit 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 Tokyo’s affluent Nishi-Azabu district in 2020. The gallery has sold works to more than 80 museums, among their 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” 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 to his gallery’s return to London’s flagship for the first time since 2019: a return and a reimagining.

A Lighthouse called Kanata’s Masterpiece presentation in London “speaks to how culture is constantly evolving,” Lucie Kitchener, the fair’s chief executive, wrote in an email. “Art is constantly rediscovered and reimagined, and the fair offers an opportunity to explore this across time, discipline and culture.”

Two of the artists whose work A Lighthouse called Kanata will in many ways showcase the Japanese approach to timelessness and elegance. Ms. Hasegawa, 38, is known for her contemporary take on the ancient Japanese art of Nihonga painting. She works with the traditional materials of Iwa-enogu, which are mineral pigments, and washi, handmade Japanese paper.

“I paint images that come to mind, and when I face a Buddhist temple or see a landscape, they are abstract in my mind,” she explained in a telephone interview from Tokyo. “These materials can produce subtle texture and add depth to a painting, but they are difficult to handle and preparation requires much thought and concentration.”

For Mrs. For Ikuta, 68, a former jazz pianist, creating glass sculptures is not unlike creating music, especially the spontaneity of jazz. This ties into the idea of ​​minimalism, she said, as every note should 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 the desire to blend the same principles of lyricism and rhythm in my work.”

She creates her geometric sculptures by laminating small strings of glass with glue that exposes where lines overlap and intersect. Its shapes can resemble a nautilus, an eyeball, a lung, or a black hole, with delicate ground lines.

Their facades are similar to cotton candy in their delicacy. Light splashes from different angles.

Her glass works have been described as ethereal by more than one critic, an opinion that Mr. Aoyama echoed him. Simplicity is what defines them as universal and timeless, turning to the approach of celebrating simple forms in a timeless way.

“It’s performing its musical rhythms in glass and light because it’s manipulating light with 60 different layers of glass,” he said. “The way she does it is really fascinating. You could tell that to an Eskimo 200 years ago without saying a single word, and it would hit his heart.”

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