Contributed by Marjorie Welish / A Berlin-based Japanese artist well-established abroad, Leiko Ikemura is now having her first exhibition in the United States at Fergus McCaffrey in Chelsea. The show presents a range of her works to fine effect, including masks, figurines in terracotta, and others in cast glass. Her drawing and painting are of particular note. Ikemura pulls together antithetical forces to keep the drawing painterly, and the painting grounded in gestural drawing.
Through caricature she depicts the female subject under threat. Although assuredly visceral, schematic renderings of the figure also read as more deeply psychological. A demon appears in several works that set the tone. In an untitled, 1986 work in oil, a female impaled by diabolical instruments is recognizable as a traditional object of expressionistic painterly excess. Although the theme is familiar, Ikemura’s haptic sensibility is fresh and unclichéd. The piece also demonstrates how powerful the tension between drawing and painting can be. Ikemura prefers a mixture of mediums, from which she coaxes expressivity. Praise of Light II and The Beginning, both from 2020, eloquently compound tempera and oil on jute.
In Ikemura’s hands, charcoal lends tactile force to line, and when combined with pastel in large drawings pushes painterliness towards turmoil. Whether of a facial mask or a figural fragment, each drawing is compelling. In Monster, employing a formal device much admired by modernist artists, she places the female in the clutches of a demonic figure, its arm twisted around her in a rhythmic phrase. This primitivist modernism is from the playbook of German Expressionists Ernst Kirchner and Erich Heckel, who in turn are indebted to Matisse. Think of The Dance.
Roger Fry, in his celebrated essay “On Some Modern Drawings,” notes that Matisse derived his innovative phrasing of limbs – heedless of anatomy, yet convincing as such – from the work of the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamuro and Asian art more broadly. Whether or not this complex cultural genealogy is on Ikemura’s mind, integrating Western and Eastern visions is part of her creative modus operandi and distinguishes her work from mere post-modernist pastiche.
“Leiko Ikemura: Anima Alma – Works 1981–2022,” Fergus McCaffrey, 514 W. 26th Street, New York, NY. Through January 14, 2023.
About the Author: Marjorie Welish is a painter and the author of Signifying Art: Essays on Art Since 1960 (Cambridge University Press).
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