Hiroomi Ito’s Tongue-in-Cheek Japan

The exhibition’s title refers to the infamous meditation on Japanese culture produced by anthropologist Ruth Benedict during World War II. Often criticized for its research methods, the book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was influential both in international conceptions of Japanese identity and in the way the country saw itself. Ito, who was raised and educated in Japan but now lives in Barcelona, plays upon the book’s assertion that the Japanese psyche is full of contradictions by creating artworks that exemplify this duality of spirit.
Highly educated in long-held Japanese customs, Ito loads the exhibition with obvious and subtle homages to his culture. The work itself is executed in a deeply traditional manner, from the self-made natural pigments and rice-paper canvases, to the techniques of ink wash and calligraphy, to the gold- and silver-leaf appliques used both in the works-on-paper and on the folding dividers that dominate the exhibition.
However, the subject matter tackled here is tongue in cheek, with representations of a Westerner’s clichéd and exoticized conception of what “Japanese” means: sushi, koi ponds, the tattooed body of a yakuza. Yet, more discreetly, the artist also includes allusions only recognizable to one who is well-versed in the intricacies of the social and familial order, such as the still lifes of bowls of rice in which each element has a different signified meaning in Japanese culture: luxury implied by gold leaf, passion indicated by steam, a level of high taste indicated by a type of seafood.
This concept is manifested in Ito’s “Colour Vision” paintings. Made up of polka-dotted circles that coalesce to become Japanese characters, the works are imitations of test images that are meant to detect color blindness; here they are used to test the ability or desire to see intricacies of place, identity, and art.

—K. Sundberg

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” at JanKossen Contemporary, New York, Jun. 11– Jul. 11, 2015