There’s a certain kind of salesmanship, promoted by the city council and developers and residents, that pushes the concept of Sand City as an arts enclave. But Sand City is stubbornly Sand City, a place where warehouses are leased by businesses that require a lot of space and noise forgiveness, a place where the past won’t make way easily for an imagined future.
All that doesn’t keep artists and gallerists from trying to breach Sand City’s blue collar character and add more colors. The latest venture comes from gallerist Gail Enns, who used to put up work at her Anton Hotel. Transcendental Vision opens this Friday, Jan. 27, in the stark industrial space of The Independent. It’s a major show for Sand City, of Japanese aesthetics and sensibilities projected through artists who are American, and tangentially connected to Japan.
“This show is about culture and ideas,” Enns says. “About how ideas have migrated, from [Japan] to Iowa, Georgia, New York, Maryland.”
Patrick Frank, author of university textbook Artforms: An Introduction to the Visual Arts and a former professor of regional art history at CSU Monterey Bay, penned the exhibition’s purpose:
“Japanese culture is everywhere these days,” he writes, citing manga sales, the Sudoku World Championships, karaoke, anime, Nintendo and even Iron Chef America. “[But] the artists of Transcendental Vision have something deeper in mind.”
That’s kind of a false premise, to compare Japan’s youthful pop culture stuff with the mostly serene contemporary artwork that’s assembled here.
But what Enns is doing with this show is also a bit off kilter. She’s assembled about a dozen American and Japanese-American artists (and about 40 of their collective works of art) to explore certain strains of Japanese contemporary art that have made their way into American culture.
Asked the purpose, Enns finds ambiguity: “This show is really for… to show… how do I express it?..You don’t look at most of these artists and think, ‘That’s Japanese.’ You think about quiet contemplation or an idea. It’s subtle. Maybe it’s a Zen feeling, maybe it’s not.”
Ambiguity can be refreshing. Or it can be frustrating.
“It is the viewer who brings meaning to the object,” Mary Annella Frank writes in her artist’s statement. Her sculptures look like oblong crevices the viewer might construe as some human organ. Rob Barnard, who studied in Japan, crafts beautiful earthen pottery that he insists is different from sculpture because “we use pottery.” Useful art.
But Grace Munakata’s collage paintings, though not traditionally useful, are busy and exciting, seemingly colliding with themselves. And Lisa Solomon’s “gender identity” embroidery work is feminine and ironic. Some of the artists have tenuous connections to Japan. Enns admits as much with the inclusion of Sharron Antholt and Laurel Farrin, though she writes they both embody the “Zen principle of solitude.”
And that brings us to Tamiko Kawata. She came to New York, from her native Japan, in 1962. Her work in Transcendental Vision consists of two sculptures on pedestals, a couple of pieces on the wall, and two big installation pieces made of safety pins that form chains stretching from the ceiling to the floor, where they radiate in growing circles. Through a still-prominent Japanese-inflected accent, she tells the story of the pieces, called “Rain Forest.”
It was first built in 1998 when she got a grant from the state of New York for $1,000, which allowed her to buy the safety pins. She read about the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima (when she was living in Japan, she says, she was too young to understand what they meant). She went to Kyoto and visited a temple that housed a meditative rock garden with “rocks like Monterey Bay.”
“We were passing a very small pond. Everybody else was gone… and in this pond something fell and made a beautiful ripple for whole pond,” she says. “I was watching it and it was so beautiful. I wanted to connect this beauty of nature and the atomic bomb victims.”
How’s that for a juxtaposition? But it gets close to being a key to the exhibit.
“When I assemble ‘Rain Forest,’ it’s really meditative, but at the same time, it takes a long time, a lot of concentration,” she says.
And that’s how this show looks to greet viewers most effectively, as a place for the mind and the spirit to be still. Forget about intellectual discourse or art criticism, set aside cultural exchange or assimilation or big city culture. Let the meditation of the artists’ work seep in through a quiet transference. Just be quiet. For a moment.
TRANSCENDENTAL VISION, JAPANESE CULTURE AND CONTEMPORARY ART (and Heroes All: Nisei Veterans by photographer Tom Graves) opens 5-8pm Friday, at the Independent, 600 Ortiz Ave., Sand City. (202) 253-4507. It runs through Feb. 26.