Three Japanese Artists Subvert Tradition at New York’s Onishi Gallery

From ancient temples and tea ceremonies to avant-garde fashion and cutting-edge technology, few places in the world balance the past and the future quite like Japan. “Draw The Line,” a new exhibition at Onishi Gallery in New York, brings together three contemporary artists who have straddled that line.

Though working in time-tested mediums—Yu-ichi Inoue (1916–1985) in calligraphy, Shun Sudo (b. 1977) in painting, and NAOYA (b. 1958) in sculpture—the trio is unbound by tradition.

Each took a different route to innovation. Inoue studied from the age of 25 to become a master calligrapher, earning international acclaim for his work. But it wasn’t long before he turned away from tradition and experimented with the character-based form by mixing in elements of Western-style abstract expressionism. And he didn’t just push the boundaries for himself: Inoue co-founded Bokujin Kai, an avant-garde movement for calligraphy that merged stylistic elements from East and West.

NAOYA also passed from familiar tradition into the avant-garde realm, albeit in a different medium. As a young artist, he assisted his father, Nagae Rokuya, a sculptor renowned for his figurative works in wood. NAOYA learned the basics in his father’s studio before going on to create his own “POLY KANTEN” series, an offbeat “imaginary world” of creatures. His characters—otherworldly hybrids of children, fairies, goddesses, and animals—are rendered in wood, as in his father’s work, but then painted white, silver, and bronze. NAOYA’s medium might be traditional, but the results are not: The creatures’ indecipherable expressions challenge and even confront the viewer.

Rounding out the trio is Tokyo-based Shun Sudo, youngest of the three artists. There’s plenty of contemporary influence in his splashy, Pop Art–inspired paintings, from his street art–sensibility to his cartoonish figures and references to corporate brands. But look closer: His painterly style is reminiscent of Japanese sumi-e painting, while his mastery of ink calls to mind the ancient art of calligraphy.

Like Inoue before him, Sudo appreciates tradition, even as he diverges from it. Grounded in the past but looking to the future, his distinctly Japanese work subverts the form, boldly reinterpreting it for a modern audience.


—Bridget Gleeson


Draw The Line” is on view at Onishi Gallery, New York, Apr. 19–Aug. 5, 2016.

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