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Natural Power

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Ever since Marcel Duchamp expressed a distaste for art that was too "retinal," art designed to give visual pleasure has had a hard time. A painting that's lovely to look at, and nothing more, seems hopelessly naive. But some works of genuinely compelling beauty, while they offer no concepts translatable into verbal statements, achieve some of the completeness and complexity of consciousness itself. What's interesting about Shoichi Ida and Miki Lee is that their works are sometimes merely pretty and sometimes visually compelling, and that their weaknesses oppose and thereby illuminate their strengths.

Ida, a Japanese artist who was born in Kyoto in 1941 and still lives and works there, is represented by 50 works at Perimeter, 32 on paper and 18 ceramic sculptures. Though he exhibits frequently in the United States, his perfectly composed works are deeply influenced by traditional Japanese art. In a 1983 interview, Ida complained that Western artists approach their media with the question "How can I occupy the material?" He argues that they wish to change their material, "make it theirs," while he merely wants to appreciate its "natural characteristics."

Touch the Earth: Between Leaf and Stone No. 698 is a case in point: at the center of a large sheet of white handmade paper is an actual leaf with a thin circle drawn around it; at the lower left, a small stone is set into the paper. At first this spare arrangement seemed lovely, every element aptly chosen and precisely placed. But the whole is too precious, too static: the circle around the leaf is not so much a compositional element as a device telling us how beautiful the artist thinks this natural object is. Each element seems to announce its own beauty rather than combine with the others dynamically. And the rough, organic irregularity of the white paper is echoed almost nowhere else in the composition: Ida's rectangular shapes at top and bottom--though they're integral to the paper because the dye was applied as it was being made--nonetheless seem alien to the paper's organic surface.

While a number of Ida's compositions reveal similar problems, the best of them place opposing forms in enigmatic combinations as complete and untranslatable as haiku. The collage Touch the Earth: Earth-Feel-Plant No. 840 is an arrangement of bits of colored paper into rectangular shapes; within one is a tiny fragment of a plant. But the paper fragments themselves are partly decayed: several have multiple holes evoking the eventual degeneration of the plant. Sazare (A)-No. 14 includes four flower shapes, a large circle, and an allover pattern that resembles netting and seems to hang in front of everything else, all set against a bluish wash irregularly dripping from the top edge. Its colliding shapes--organic and inorganic, geometric and irregular--seem to represent different forces of nature.

Many of Ida's prints come to life because of these collisions between diverse shapes, but such contrasts are even more explicit in his ceramic sculptures. Surface Is the Between--Between Vertical and Horizontal: Between Falling and Rising Energy No. 154 juxtaposes lightness and weight, horizontal expansiveness and the implied pull of gravity. Between two rectangular blocks, one on top of the other, is a tiny folded tonguelike shape that slightly elevates and angles the top block. The blocks seem quite massive compared to the little tongue, and though they extend horizontally in space, the upper one is palpably pressing down on the lower. In Yagura No. 30 long blocks are arranged like the crisscrossed logs of a bonfire; the tower shape also echoes the architecture of Japanese temples. Because the blocks are a bit thinner where they cross one another, one feels the weight of the tower on each; at the top a solid clay plane supports a ball, whose weight seems to have slightly bent this surface. The tower's ascent is thus opposed by the visible effects of gravity.

Ida articulates in formal terms the central incongruity of a ceramic pot: how can its supple curves resist gravity, supporting the heavy material? In fact Untitled CE-13 includes a tiny bowl atop a stack of flat rectangles split just under the bowl, as if its weight were fissuring the slices. Here we have Ida at his best, his materials both asserting their mass and resisting it to create a dynamic form seemingly still in the process of being shaped.

Miki Lee's 16 new paintings and drawings at Klein reveal some of the same pitfalls and pleasures as Ida's works. A Korean native who came to the United States for college in the 90s, she creates abstract pieces seemingly influenced by natural shapes, and she too walks the dangerous line between living, breathing images and static prettiness. She often builds up colors in supple layers, then draws repeating circles over them with a ballpoint pen, forming a kind of honeycomb; the circles are so precise one wonders if she used a stamp, in the manner of ancient Korean ceramists (she didn't).

Lee's rich colors sometimes border on the tacky. In Untitled 29, a principal area of intense pink is offset by a thin baby blue border; unfortunately the strong color contrast in effect cancels out the pink's internal complexity--together the colors become decorative in the worst sense of the word, visible only in terms of their obvious contrast. Similarly the deep egg-yolk orange of Untitled XII is oversimplified by its contrast with a light green border: potentially supple images become as static as some of Ida's more geometrical compositions.

However, most of Lee's paintings and drawings either have no borders or have borders of a similar color to the whole, and these are evocative, poetic. In Untitled XIII a richly variegated blue-white field seems to ascend; one thinks of clouds, though the image is hardly representational and its delicate forms are even less distinct than clouds. Though circles dominate in Lee's exhibit, here she's drawn ovals over the surface; resembling compressed circles, they suggest a kind of weight in contrast with the work's airiness.

In the small Drawing #7 brownish dots fill the lower portion of a pea green field; I thought of a brick wall, then of a pile of logs. Unlike the contrasting border of Untitled 29, which seems to enclose and ultimately entomb the work, Lee's more subtle, interpenetrating colors here--green is visible not only between the dots but within them--evoke different moods, different ideas, as the nearly solid green is overtaken by the dense pattern of neatly articulated brownish dots: in the best "retinal" art, seeing is also a kind of thinking.

This point is most evident in Lee's large Untitled 34. Against a very light tan background are painted dots of various sizes and hues, though in a narrow range between light gray and pale yellow. Even here Lee's colors approach a dangerous sweetness, but by combining different shapes and varying her design--the dots sometimes touch, sometimes overlap, but most often don't quite meet--she creates a field alive with motion. The dots occupy most of the picture except for the side edges, creating the sense of a vertically moving weightless stream, almost a galaxy of stars suspending the viewer in their midst.


Shoichi Ida
at Perimeter, through August 30
Miki Lee
at Klein Art Works, through August 30
By Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Yagura No. 30" by Shoichi Ida; ": Drawing #7" by Miki Lee.

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