Visual poet takes child's delight in moments

by Jerry Cullum - For the Journal-Constitution

"Leiko Ikemura: Dreams, Fragments, Females"

Verdict: Ikemura's small works sometimes outrank her already exquisite large ones.

Japan's long fascination with childlike cuteness has attracted much comment lately. The 55-year-old artist Leiko Ikemura incorporates the roots of that fascination into a serious aesthetic vision.

Ikemura, who represented Japan in the 1999 Melbourne International Biennial, has long lived in Europe. Distance, plus her own distinct imagination, gives her perspective. Though her works bear subtle indicators of their culture of origin, a few pieces in this show also seem to reference European myths, such as the birth of Venus or Leda and the Swan.

In the drawings, in particular, Ikemura has incorporated traditional Japanese ideas of harmony into a vocabulary borrowed from childhood. The subtle rightness of her choices, plus the immediate appeal of her style, makes for a potent combination.

Ikemura is a visual poet of small, intimate moments of daily life, at least the daily life of the archetypal girls/women she creates. So it comes as no surprise that her pastel and crayon drawings should be among her best works.

The oil paintings and bronze sculptures stretch her topics in mysterious directions. The drawings offer elemental activities. "Falling" or "Sleeping" or "Standing" have seldom been so purely expressed in such a genuinely childlike drawing style.

That is, they give the illusion of childlike lines. In reality, Ikemura is totally in control of these naive-looking marks. The authentic spontaneity might even elicit the famous words, "My 6-year-old could do that." Skeptics should rest assured that they never, ever could.

It takes a special sensitivity to maintain this balance of spontaneity and control. The art critics in Ikemura's many exhibition catalogs load down this work with an immense weight of theory, but all that counts is that she puts the gestures of childhood drawing in the service of grown-up perceptions and insights.

As the quite wonderful exhibition title, "Dreams, Fragments, Females," indicates, art critics also make much of the fact that there are no men in Ikemura's artwork. But this isn't obvious in a first casual viewing. Just as Ikemura's spontaneous marks exist independent of cultural boundaries, her general topics and situations will be as familiar to men as to women. "Universal" is a cuss word these days, but Ikemura comes as close as anybody to being that.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Dreams, Fragments, Females:
Leiko Ikemura's Body Imagery

by Donald Kuspit

Why should the unconscious, which possesses the means for awareness
of our bodily intimacy, be blocked when it comes to the vagina?
Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, "Freud and Female
Sexuality: The Consideration of Some Blind Spots in the
Exploration of the 'Dark Continent' "(1)

Little girls, grown women, sometimes together, suggesting mother and daughter, sometimes apart, suggesting loneliness--this is the constant theme in Leiko Ikemura's art. Repeated over and over, with an obsessive versatility and variation, Ikemura's females are clearly emanations from her unconscious. They are invariably haunting, dreamlike, often no more than an elusive, almost immaterial trace in her paintings and watercolors--a ghostly revelation of a figure, a peculiarly muted hallucination, as Out of the Shadow, 2000 and Standing Sideways in Dark Red, 2000-2001 indicate. These works have the same intense blurriness as Redon's dream imagery: they too are created of nuances of color--ingenious touches of delicate color, instantly communicating a curiously melancholy if also sensual mood. They occupy an important place in the history of what Redon called "suggestive art," his modernist version of visionary spiritual art.

Ikemura's terracotta sculptures are much more conspicuously material, but also with the same haunting interiority--the same blurred, moody flesh, so reminiscent of Medoro Rosso's sculptures, as Ikemura's terracotta heads of the mid-nineties make clear. Sometimes Ikemura¹s females are standing, more often they are reclining, as though asleep and dreaming. Crucially, from a formal point of view, they are all fragments--incomplete bodies, sometimes missing legs, sometimes arms, and frequently featureless. This gives them an archaeological look, as though they were ruins excavated from some ancient burial site--trophies of the past, memorable relics, found by chance. But they are not simply the victims of time: they seem to have been wounded by life-doomed to be wounded--as the tearful Dolores (One-Legged), 1998 suggests. "When you are sad," Ikemura wrote, in advice to the mother and children in her painting Day, 2000-2001, "walk behind the orange colored shadows and observe the blue horizon," but the sadness and the sunset remain. Similar words accompany her sculpture Catwoman with Tail, 2001: "we have hidden and forgotten our wings on our backs." Clearly they've been clipped. "See the world completely from below, almost creeping, then you can fly in the cosmos," Ikemura writes, referring to her sculpture Leaning on the Eyes, 1997. (The German title, Sich auf die Augen stützend, is more and ambiguous and resonant, for 'stützen' can mean taken aback, falter, or clip, a point made more explicit in Yellow Figure with Three Arms, 1996, two in her eyes and one in her mouth.) But such flight is clearly escapist, like observing the blue horizon--where heaven and earth, infinite and finite space meet, evoking the feeling of the sublime--as many figures do in Caspar David Friedrich's paintings. Ikemura's flights of fancy--her aesthetic fantasies of female identity--enact rather than relieve her suffering.

Dolores's pathos is emblematic of the impacted emotionality of virtually all the figures. They may be particular individuals, but their featurelessness gives them an archetypal look--dramatically in the unexpectedly forceful terracotta figures of 2004, if, more generally, fatalistically. Indeed, Ikemura's figures seem to be resigned to their fate--the fate of being female. Whether inspired by Japanese models, as in the sculptures Figura Lu, 2002 and Figura Li, 2002-2003, or typically Western, as in the oil paintings Duck Tears I and II, both 2004, and standing together or apart--sometimes in the same picture, as in Ocean III (Between Horizons), 2000-2001--Ikemura's females are peculiarly insular, poignant, and passive, suggesting an incompletely realized yet unavoidable femininity. Such vigorous, hyperactive figures as Ma-San, Miu-San,Wu-San, and Ho-San, all 2004--they are mounted on phallic pedestals, indeed, seem to grow out of them, as in Pu-San and Chichi-San, both 2004, where the column becomes a kind of tail (more dragon-like than cat-like to my eyes)--are the rare exception that proves the rule.

Now the startling thing about such terracotta sculptures as Lying with the Face Holding and Lying in Cherry-red, both 1997, Lying Figure with Face on Miko and Lying in Turkish Dress, both 1998, is the huge cavity at the base of the figure. The same cavity appears in Lying, 1996 and in each of the figures in Upon the Other, 1997, and, disastrously, in Yellow Dress with Orange Bird, 1995 and Double Figure with Bird in Arm, 1998, where the cavity of the body is visible through the empty space--enormous hole—where the missing head should be. From the beginning Ikemura had a troubled sense of body, as the headless Baby Green, 1991 and White Figure I and II, both 1992 suggest, and the trouble seems to have grown greater.

Beneath the dress is a gaping hole through which one can see the hollowness of the figure. Who will--indeed, can--fill it? Is it a symbol of female unfulfillment? Who dares enter what Freud called the dark continent of the female body? Is it a cornucopia of wonders or a Pandora's box of evils, whatever the hope at its bottom? But does an abyss have a bottom? Who dares penetrate the depths of the female underworld, get to the bottom of the female mystery? Only the all-powerful phallus--the really bold, daring, heroic male, driven by both ambition and lust--dare do so. One immediately thinks of a sentence in Freud's Three Essays on Sexuality (1905): "The processes at puberty thus establish the primacy of the genital zones; and, in a man, the penis, which has now become capable of erection, presses forward insistently towards the new sexual aim--penetration into a cavity."(2) The cavity in Ikemura's lying female figures is an elaboration--a fantasy enlargement--of an engulfing vagina. At one end of the figure, the small head--sometimes damaged, as though crushed--at the other end the huge genital cavity, exhibited for all to see, and enter if they dare. There is nothing repellent about it--it may signal castration to a neurotic male, but there is nothing ugly about it--but it is not exactly inviting. Indeed, it is as forlorn, empty, and abandoned--unresponsive and unreceptive--as the figure herself, abjectly lying on her face, as though beaten down and defeated by life. She may wear a blue dress or a cherry-red dress, but they do not make her happy. The colors are soft and muted, as though faded. She is in effect performing her own death--a living death, no doubt, but still a death. Indeed, the slabs on which the sculptures were displayed when they were exhibited in the Japanese Pavilion of the 1999 Melbourne International Biennial resemble the slabs on which bodies are laid out in a morgue.

The flat slabs can be read as a minimalist foil to the rounded figures, giving the works a post-modernist character--abstract geometry and figurative representation exist side by side in the same work, abruptly juxtaposed rather than harmoniously integrated. But the conflict suggests the emotional conflict between formal control and abandonment to emotion evident in Ikemura's works. While Ikemura's work shows the influence of Japanese culture and art, with its haiku-like restraint and intensity--concentration building to a climactic epiphany (she acknowledges the influence of haiku poetry, as an idea if not a form)--she began her career as a German Neo-Expressionist, as a number of 1991 works make clear. She eventually established her independence by dealing with her feminine and Japanese identity, although her paintings remain informed by Rothkoesque abstraction and, more subtly, the romantic naturalism of European landscape painting, all of which have been transformed to serve Ikemura's sense of idiosyncratic and multicultural--finally transcultural--identity. She has in effect integrated Japanese and German, and more broadly modernist and traditional, ideas of art in her own unique way. (Prominent among the 1991 works are Squatting with Dark Hair, 1991 and the various O.T.-W.T paintings. Their figurines suggest the influence of Georg Baselitz's pandemonium imagery and perhaps Jean Dubuffet's art brut imagery, while Ikemura's watercolors have a certain affinity with those of Beuys. Her Head Footer, also 1991 clearly shows the influence of Horst Antes's breakthroughKopffüssler figures, generally regarded as the first significant postwar German Neo-Expressionist figuration.)

Where, then, is the heroic penis--the mythical phallus--that dares enter this dark female cave? It is striking that nowhere in Ikemura's oeuvre is there a painting or sculpture of a man. There are only females, adolescent or motherly. All of them are implicitly self-symbols--symbols of Ikemura's own dialectical femininity. Each female figure is a cosmos unto itself--"sea after dying, sea after giving birth," Ikemura has written—and together they form a cosmos in no need of men. Man has not simply been ousted, but he doesn't exist--indeed, never can exist in Ikemura's atmospheric paradise. Ikemura's paintings strongly suggest a kind of "oceanic experience"--a fragile yet seamless merging with the cosmos in which one forfeits one's individuality, and, more deeply, ecstatically loses one's sense of being an independent person or autonomous self, dispensed with in the "mystical" experience as an unnecessary illusion. Thus Ikemura's figures dissolve into illusions--vivid, magical illusions, but nonetheless transient illusions in the timeless oceanic atmosphere, which seems to have a sublime substance of its own.

Freud has argued that oceanic experience involves unconscious regression to the womb--archaic merger with the archaic mother. It is a fantasy merger with the imagined penis of the so-called phallic woman--the pre-Oedipal, all-powerful mother on whom the infant's life depends. Indeed, dependence--amae, the so-called dependency syndrome(3)--is a subtext of Ikemura's imagery: again and again we see mature women and immature girls standing together, as though emotionally clinging to and re-fueling one another, to use the psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler's concept. The tail that many of Ikemura's woman possesses suggests that they are phallic mothers. (The horn-like ears of Hare Woman, 1990-91--an acknowledgement of the influence of Joseph Beuys, who regarded the hare as a mercurial messenger between the underworld and upper world--are its antecedent.) Indeed, Ikemura's phallic women are as dynamic and powerful--full of aggressive strength--as the penis at the moment of its penetration into vaginal cavity, where it is contained and spends its power. But the phallic woman—the eternal feminine that is the all-encompassing mother--never loses her power and authority in the infantile part of the mind. They are mythologized into the eternally erect phallus of the Magna Mater.

Ikemura's adolescent girls cannot completely separate from this awesome, sacred figure even as they cannot unequivocally identify with her—although Ikemura does by way of her creative power, that is, the power of giving birth to subtle works of art. When they do separate, they are lonely and melancholy, full of the unfathomable sadness emblematic of her absence—the depressive misery of a mysterious loss that has happened in the mythically remote past of infancy, as the psychoanalyst Charles Brenner has suggested. Ikemura, then, is the adolescent girl, the motherly woman, and the sublime atmosphere--they are all parts of the personal drama she enacts in her art. The adolescent girl symbolizes psychosexual immaturity, the catwomen are in principle mature phallic mothers, and the erotic oceanic atmosphere that engulfs both--it informs their flesh in the sculptures--is the medium of their merger. Ikemura's forlorn girls suffer from separation anxiety, which they "heal" by regressing to the mother for whom they long.

The Miko doll that appears in many of Ikemura's works is a symbol of the problem of separation-individuation they address. The obsessional redundancy of the works suggests the depth of the problem. The doll is a superb example of what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called a transitional object--something invested with the mother's aura and unconscious meaning yet something that the child experiences as objectively the case. Ikemura's Miko doll is her security blanket--a reality that is found in the world but that is also emotionally created. The poignant, enigmatic beauty of Ikemura's paintings and sculptures--inward as well as outward beauty--is an indication of their emotional profundity. They are a profound reminder of the vicissitudes of female identity.


(1)Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Sexuality and Mind: The Role of the
Father and the Mother in the Psyche (New York and London: New York
University Press, 1986), p. 12

(2)Quoted in Ibid., p. 11

(3)Ikemura's works seem to represent the Japanese dependency syndrome in all its complexity. Robert C. Christopher, The Japanese Mind (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1983), p. 69 notes that the amae "relationship is as binding psychologically upon the protector as on the protected. This combination of constant maternal attention and all-embracing love gives Japanese children an enviable sense of security in their early years, considerably complicates male-female relations, since both men and woman are always unconsciously trying to find someone who will love and cherish them as uncritically as Mama professed to--which, in most cases, is obviously a foredoomed effort" (p. 68). One might add, as Ikemura's work makes clear, it impacts on one's sense of identity at the deepest level--the level of the body ego, which Freud regarded as the first ego and as such the foundation on which every other sense of ego is built. One senses that Ikemura is constantly rebuilding--struggling to re-create--a body ego that keeps collapsing, as the seemingly age-old traces of damage that mark it suggest.


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