It is important to single out strong artists who don’t fit into any stylistic category, but whose work challenges our assumptions regarding art history, and both the modern and contemporary tendencies to develop overarching narratives that influence our understanding as well as cloud our perceptions of art. In standing apart from the dominant creative and critical trajectories, the work of these artists enables us to shed the habits of looking for the more engaged act of seeing freshly. Leiko lkemura is such an artist. She paints in oil, draws in various mediums, including charcoal, pastel, graphite, and ink, and makes sculptures from fired and unfired clay and bronze. Her luminous veils of colors range from the palest yellows, greens, and blues to deep, blacks, blues, and reds. Her colors evoke the mineral world of radiant gems, faded surfaces, moonless nights, and a sun-drenched plains and shores. lkemura uses traditional materials to achieve and maintain a quietly fierce independence that is all the more distinctive in this age of globalization, the cross-pollination of styles and strategies, and endless mimicry. In this regard, she shares something with the older American artist, June Leaf, whose work also goes beyond the idiosyncratic to achieve a resonance that is both uniquely eloquent and deeply mysterious. Like Leaf, lkemura belongs to the small cadre of independent artists that includes Jean Fautrier and Giorgio Morandi in Europe, Armando Reveron in South America, and Albert York in America. Each evokes an autonomous realm that challenges any assumption we might have about art and what it can achieve.
lkemura was born in Tsu, in the prefecture of Mie, near Osaka. Japan in 1951. Since 1972,when she left Japan, she has lived in Spain (1972-1979), Switzerland (1979-1983) and, since 1983, in Germany. It is a further testament to her independence that she neither tried to fit into the prevailing art scene dominating each of these locales nor idealized the different and particular landscapes she left behind. In other words, she remained self-sufficient, and this liberty comes through in all of her art, even when it is a painting or sculpture of a young girl lying prone or falling toward the earth. What makes lkemura’s independence all the more remarkable is her willingness to have her subjectsgirls on the brink of puberty-embody awkwardness and vulnerability. They are confused and brave, lost and defiant. All of them are deeply introspective and solitary.
Exploring states of awkwardness in art is rare, particularly when one is not turning these states into a style or commenting on them. Very few contemporary artists are daring enough to embrace any aspect of it in both their practice and their subject matter. lkemura does the contrary; she embraces awkwardness but she doesn’t fetishize it. The poses her subjects take feel specific rather than staged. In addition, the artist explores elusive, inward states, but never turns them into a story or, worse, an anecdote. She shuns narrative, but, at the same time, she doesn’t lift her figures into an abstract realm where they would become iconic. Rather, her subjects inhabit an elemental world of color, light, land, and water. Characteristic of all her paintings, the elemental is most evident in the ones without figures, where a streaked sky and a shadowy landscape seem interchangeable, and viewers cannot always tell if they are looking at a landscape or clouds. lkemura further complicates this perceptual conundrum by using colors such as black, greenish-yellow, and reds tinged here and there with blue, where it becomes impossible to discern what they are referring to. Perhaps it is not moonlight we see but mist enveloping a barren landscape. Even when there is a horizon we feel disembodied. This sense of dislocation, with its attendant feelings of vertigo, is a recurring feature in her work in all mediums. The ground we stand on is never secure.
The relationship of the subject matter to both the materials and processes suggests that lkemura’s art is rooted in a metaphysical understanding of reality. She uses oil paint, which is pigment (or colored earth) suspended in a liquid medium, while in her sculptures she uses clay (earth) which she fires in a kiln. In her paintings, both the environment and the figure seem to be made of the same materials, earth, water, light, and luminous color. The veils of paint feel as if they have been caressed into the canvas, and in places one can still see its weave peeking through the paint. It is a world of light and shadow, of fleeting moments and strong centers of withheld emotion. In both the painting and the sculptures, the subjects, materials, and processes mirror each other, as well as establish a means for self-reflection. These are works in which we see ourselves looking at a world that is simultaneously vivid and distant, intimate and introverted, quiet and agitated.
Sometimes there is a horizon and the figure or figures are standing by or in the sea. It is an incandescent world of light and shadow in which the young girl is both caught and inhabits. Materially speaking, it is a radiant world where the difference between the figures and the elemental world they inhabit is a matter of tonality and thus light, rather than of substance. Both the figures and the world they inhabit seem to be made of exactly the same stuff. It is an interior world, a realm animated by apprehension. And yet, for all the trepidation that suffuses through these paintings, there is also an immense calm and silence, a world of thinking and feeling that is known only to the subject. This interiority is at the core of lkemura’s work; it inflects every decision that she makes in her work. It is why mysterious is accurate to anything that can written about this artist’s work.
In the passage from childhood to adulthood, society demands that the child surrender her or his fantasies in exchange for a more practical relationship to reality.
In childhood, one can still be a king or a queen, a cowboy or a ballerina, but being adult means that one must realign one’s relationship to reality, must become more responsible and therefore realistic. It is this crucial moment that lkemura seems to explore in her work. Her subjects are often in a moment of reflection; they have stopped in the middle of whatever they were doing-often it is simply walking along the shore or ambling among a flock of geese-because they have momentarily withdrawn from the world, gone into themselves. For all the calm that they inhabit, they are in touch with their inchoate feelings; and one imagines that a storm is building inside of them, one so powerful that it could lift them up into the air, like a tornado. The figures are both distinct and a blur; and they are inextricable from the elemental realm in which they dwell, a world that is as much a state of being as a place where the sky meets the sea. For all of their surface resemblances, each one of the girls is highly specific. They are not archetypes or symbols; they are young girls whose faces haven’t quite achieved distinct personality traits, a pointed nose or upturned lips, for example. Their eyes are often holes, wounds from which we imagine an endless fountain of tears could spurt. This is because they are still in a state of becoming, still undergoing further transformations, each of which is defined by the pain one must bear. They are both in the midst of change and at the beginning of it. In this regard, everything lkemura does in paint echoes the state of change these girls are currently undergoing. For example, she often endows the girls with a body and face that is a haze of color; they hover between form and dissipation. The implication is clear and forceful; the girls have yet to become what the world demands of them. The self they will inevitably become hasn’t yet manifested itself, and developed into something concrete that others could point to.
The girls are simultaneously removed from our gaze and vividly present. The world they inhabit is often more shadow than light. They are lying down, hugging the floor or ground. They are standing in profile, looking at something distant that exists beyond the edges of the painting. They have turned their head slightly, but are reluctant to turn it all the way and meet our gaze. They have fallen from above, and are about to land on the floor or ground. And even though they are falling, they glow with a gracefulness and fluidity that we associate with a great dancer. Both the girls and the dancer make everything they do look effortless. The difference, of course, is vulnerability. The dancer courts vulnerability, while lkemura’s girls are vulnerable and cannot escape it.
lkemura’s subjects are simultaneously contemporary and archaic, withdrawn and rebellious. From their featureless poses to the luminous veils of color that defines their physical existence, they embrace contradictions on every level. In their simplicity they achieve a complexity and resonance that is largely unrivaled in today’s art. For one thing, while a number of contemporary artists have addressed the subject of adolescence, they do so in external terms. Their subjects are seen in a familiar world populated by the props we currently associate with being a teenager, skateboards, iPods, particular clothes and hairstyles. In contrast to the world’s preoccupation with adolescence, particularly as a symbol for freedom, lkemura focuses on the period that comes just before adolescence, and just before a girl’s body starts to undergo dramatic physical change. lkemura’s figures are the younger sisters of Edgar Degas’ bronze sculpture of the fourteen-year-old Marie van Goethem, Little Dancer(1880-1881), which was cast in bronze in 1922. Degas’ figure embodies the stress, training, and youthful elegance of an adolescent ballerina who hopes to achieve stardom on the stage. lkemura’s figures, especially the ones that are prone or falling, evoke another viewpoint; the moment of awkwardness and possibly even failure that accompanies every desire, not just that of the younger dancer-to-be. It is a world in which hope and hopelessness exist in close proximity, and desire and inescapable solitariness are joined.
In the ceramic sculpture Sich Auf Die Augen stützend (Leaning On The Eyes) (1997), lkemura achieves a moment of haunting, inconsolable pain and beauty. A specific but anonymous girl is lying on the ground with her hands plunged deep into her eye sockets. The pale colors of her dress and the yellow of her hair are at odds with her emotional state, which gives the work all that much more power. In addition to Degas’ Little Dancer, I am also reminded of Picasso’s image of the weeping woman, which preoccupied him throughout much of 1937, when he was working on Guernica. Like Picasso, lkemura does not detail the circumstances of the girl’s pain, because it goes beyond the situation. It isn’t necessarily the result of external circumstances. In fact, it may be an unavoidable state that all of us must endure. This inclusiveness is central to lkemura’s work. In the end, no matter what our gender, we all become her subject.
There are very few contemporary artists that can be mentioned in the same sentence as Degas and Picasso, particularly if one isn’t trying to be ironic. For while lkemura doesn’t fit into any stylistic category, and makes work that stands apart from contemporary trends and movements, her paintings and sculptures are able to sustain prolonged comparison to the singular works of Degas and Picasso that I have mentioned. Awkwardness, vulnerability, isolation, inner turbulence, and pain that is both unavoidable and devastating are hardly popular subjects. It requires that the artist be open to the world and all its states of flux and calm; it is a level of engagement that few individuals ever achieve. We cannot look at the world so sympathetically without believing that we will be able to change what we see. lkemura doesn’t offer the hope of intervention; nothing it seems will change the lives of these young girls. They have to endure in order to survive, and all the time they are alone. In that, both lkemura and her subjects are intrepid beings making their way in a barren primordial world radiating with light or drenched in shadow.