By Jennifer Smith
Everything old is new again. In a pair of shows, Madison artists
T.L. Solien and Fujiko Isomura revive old techniques--fresco
and the application of gold leaf, respectively--as an integral
part of their work.
Solien creates quirky yet melancholy frescoes out of dental plaster
on wooden backings. He began experimenting with fresco during
a period in the early '90s in which he sought a portable medium.
Career circumstances required him to live apart from his family,
keeping him in transit frequetnly. The situation led to an appealing
series of paintings that capture the artist's sense of longing
during this time, but also flashes of humor (As in "Self
Portrait as Neighbor Dog," featuring a grinning, Picasso-like
Solien has created and evocative personal vocabulary out of simple,
emblematic images: burnt matches, leaves, strings of Japanese
lanterns and highway signs. The paintings have a rough quality
that comes from both the matte, pitted surface of the plaster
and the artist's deliberately naive style.
Many of the works have unusual shapes: octagons, the shield shape
of road markers, a many pointed star. "Chinese Elm w/Burned
Mathes" almost has the shape of a long-handled mirror, if
not for its asymmetry. In this work, bright washes of yellow
and red form leaves that are counterbalanced by the charcoal
wisps of burnt matches. The best of Solien's works have an appealing
directness and modesty and are perosnal, yet not overtly sentimental.
Fujiko Isomura has also turned personal experience into
the basis for her art. The Tokyo-born Isomura came to the U.S.
to study, earning a master of fine arts degree from the UW-Madison
in 1998. Culture clash and the humorous mixing of fine art and
pop-cultural references form the main themes of her mixed-media
Using computer scanning and editing techniques, Isomura combines
graceful, kimono-clad women from Japanese ukiyo-e prints
with instantly recognizable American icons: Snoopy, the Simpsons,
Garfield and figures lifted form Norman Rockwell paintings. She
frequently inserts her own face into the ukiyo-efigure,
making this confrontation with American culture a clearly personal
Isomura doesn't so much critique U.S. culture as revel in odd
connections; her elegant ladies seem mostly bemused by the strange
cartoon beings they encounter. Gold-leaf backgraounds heighten
this feeling of the traditional colliding with pop culture. But
just as traditional Japanese art cannot be presumed to speak
for Japan today, neither does Norman Rockwell define American
life at the turn of the millennium. What we see in Isomura's
work are familiar but often dated perceptions of the Other, not
neccesarily contemporary reality.
Isomura's best works use her trademark humor effectively yet
are also strong compositionally, like "F.I." As a woman
from a vintage Japanese print motors along behind the wheel of
a convertible, she is passed by a pair of Norman Rockwell truck
drivers who nod and wave to her as she looks cooly ahead. With
the artist's initials as the title of the work, we can assume
that the woman is a stand-in-for Isomura. The composition, with
its layering of planes and solid areas of color, draws on Japanese
print traditions. The message here seems to be that while the
artist and her new countrymen are traveling the same road, they
do so from different cultural standpoints.
The drawback of Isomura's approach is that it seems to be one-note.
The visual gag of a woman in traditional Japanese garb next to
Garfield or Snoopy rapidly wears off, and some of the works are
uninspired compositionally. Nor is she the first artist to deal
with humorous confrontations between East and West. In his "Art
History" series, Osaka-based Yasumasa Morimura inserts himself
into computer-aided reconstructions of famous Western paintings
from Leonardo to Manet. He also stages photos of himself as Hollywood
actresses like Liz Taylor and Marlyn Monroe. While these postmodern
jokes may make us crack a smile, they also leave us longing for
a deeper engagement with the complex topic of cross-cultural
influences and our globalized cluture.
ISTHMUS, Madison, WI, January 19, 2001