EXHIBITIONS by Jennifer Smith

ISTHMUS, Madison, WI, January 19, 2001


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 pooch).
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 prints.
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 one.
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

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