Impressions from Tama University students draw viewers to a familiar disturbing fantasy world
A burst of green descends from a shade of burnt orange melting into yellow, like leaves swirling from a November sky. “Full of Autumnal Scent” is on view from November 1 to December 3 at the Stanford Art Gallery, and the exhibition features ten years of prints made by undergraduate and graduate students at Tama University, one from the main art schools in Japan.
Every year since 2009, Tama University has sent Stanford a box containing its students’ prints. This connection was made through the friendship between Reiko Oshima, who served as director of a print exhibit and president of the College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ), and Sally Porter, who was previously affiliated with CWAJ and now works as guide at Cantor’s. Arts Center. The exhibition presents a diverse selection of works ranging in style from hyper-real to completely abstract, all executed with extraordinary quality and incredible detail. Despite their differences, the footprints all upset reality and question the premises of the world in which we live.
Many pieces represent fantastic worlds by taking details from our daily life and modifying them. In “Electric Train”, Saori Sinkawa creates a world of cold, metallic electronic gadgets that still hold a deep sense of humanity. Behind a row of hanging handlebars, a group of tentacle-shaped ropes weave into a train car, representing the presence of the afterlife in seemingly normal settings. Sitting next to a figure with an industrial machine at her head, a girl looks thoughtfully at her phone. Upon closer inspection, we realize that she is also a robot – the vertical streaks running down her face suggest that she is metallic. However, these streaks also resemble tears which unexpectedly humanize him. Sinkawa’s attention to verticality, from the hanging tentacles to the handrails and the stripes on the seats, gives the impression of heaviness, as if everything inside is being pulled down by gravity. . A sleepy tranquility permeates the wagon and leads us into a sleepwalking world.
Accompanying this transformation of familiar settings into a fantasy realm is a fascination with metamorphosis. In Kiyoko Hagino’s “Lecture 5”, a girl’s flesh melts into indescribable droplets that drizzle over her body and then bloom on the forest floor. Standing in the cocoon of two conjoined trees, the girl transforms into a form of plant life. Likewise, in Hitomi Yoshida’s “Flow”, a human body merges with a mass of corals and seashells. By depicting the decomposition of the body into a pattern of abstract shapes or absorption into its natural environment, artists reflect on breaking the boundaries of the body. Its dissolution into meaningless forms shows that it is nothing more than just ink, dripping or darting across the page. These prints stage the process of the emergence of meaning within figurative art, while evoking the constant threat of the disintegration of meaning. Engravers demonstrate an awareness of their own medium – the strength of wood and metal molds blend into the ink, and that ink in turn forms embodied entities and recreates the texture of the material.
A destabilizing metamorphosis effect is also evident in the copious renderings of the faces in the exhibition. In Kentaro Takano’s “Scream”, a face wrinkled with anguish and agony appears through feverish scribbles. The frenzied energy contained in the crisscrossing lines of the print reflects the expression of its subject’s face. Saki Kitamura’s “Grasslands and Galaxy II” depicts a girl crouching on what could be a window sill, her twinkling green eyes longing to escape into an alternate reality. These faces shamelessly express familiar emotions and recognizable desire, adding to their strangeness when depicted in almost monstrous forms.
These imprints are both alien and familiar, touching on common human experiences while reminding us that we do not fully understand the cultural context from which they emerge. When Tama University sent these prints to Stanford, they provided no accompanying context for the artists’ creations, leaving many questions unanswered: What was artist education like? What artistic and cultural influences have the artists undergone? What socio-political realities did they live in?
Akiha Yamagami’s lithograph “This May Not Last All My Life” depicts an amorphous scene ripping through paper and opening into a tangle of deformed bodies. It is reminiscent of the deformed bodies of damned souls struggling to cling to the clouds of the sky in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”. When I make this comparison, I am interpreting the print in the context of Western European art history, which potentially masks another meaning that the print can have. However, in my training, no other framework was available to evaluate these works. Many of us do not know the culture they came from, so we can only guess and leave room for mystery in our interpretations. These engravings open us to an unknown world; my interpretation of the painting through the lens of Michelangelo is my way of taming the terror of the unknown that the print aroused in me, not objective. By depicting bodies with detailed texture, Yamagami makes this strange new world as real as ours, ultimately forcing us to face its unsettling sublimity.
Curators Kathryn Kain, Katharine Keller and Gabriel Harrison preserve this sense of mystery with a touch of humor when they display these prints. They ranked the draws chronologically from 2009 to 2019, with draws from the same year being grouped together. A missing 2010 table disrupts this timeline. Harrison told The Daily it’s because the 2010 prints were placed in the 2009 and 2011 boxes that Tama University sent to Stanford. Rather than asking Tama University to clarify this choice, the conservatives decided to leave it as a mystery to viewers. Another intriguing detail of the exhibit is that Tama University only sent Stanford the sixth edition of each print. Harrison thought, “What if there was a mistake in number six?” Is this student excluded from the mailing he sends to Stanford? These anomalies allow viewers to get a feel for the Conservatives’ thinking process and make them laugh. A sense of humor pervaded both in the prints and in the curation reminds us of the human bonds that gave birth to this exhibition.
While it’s easy to overlook the framing structures around the prints, they are meticulously crafted to help connect the artwork while still allowing each piece to retain its individuality. In order to allow spectators to get as close as possible to the prints without touching them, the curators installed a piece of Plexiglas fixed with metallic gray screws in front of the prints. Since the prints are delicate and cannot be punched or framed, curators secured them to the back panel with magnets that look like smaller versions of the screws. A mirror between the screws and magnets allows the gray borders to frame all six 2012 prints in one artwork, while the white border marks the boundaries of each piece. “ONNa No ko” enlarges the face of “Myself”, while patches of pink strew the bottom of “Myself” in turn echoing the bright pink flowers of “Untitled”. Responding to technical limitations, the curators created fluid ways of separating prints that allow for a more complex viewing experience.
Both in the prints themselves and in the curatorship of the exhibition, the bizarre interferes with the ordinary. There are interpretive elements to remember, but ultimately a lot is unknown to curators and viewers about these prints. By absorbing us in their fantastic realities, these imprints push us to expand our realms of possibilities in foreign territory.
“Full of Autumn Scent, 10 Years of Printmaking Graduated from Tama Art University, Tokyo, Japan” is on display at the Stanford Art Gallery from November 1 to December 3, 2021. The Stanford Art Gallery is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.