The Zen of Painting and Some Other Things
Shigeno Ichimura at M.Y. Art Prospects; Fiber artists for peace

BORN IN OKINAWA AND RAISED IN TOKYO, Shigeno Ichimura has lived and worked in New York since 1989. His small, delicate abstract canvases opened M.Y. Art Prospects' inaugural show in its new space in Chelsea. Over-sized variants of the same work hung simultaneously in the lobby of Tower 49, a corporate high-rise spanning the block from 48th to 49th Street off Madison.

How very different the work looks in the two places! M.Y. Art Prospects, typical of many in Chelsea, is a room-sized gallery, not a monumental corporate sanctum. The space is suited to the intimate size of Ichimura's smaller canvases. Scaled down canvases stay true to the character of the sensibility on display. By contrast, Tower 49 is a hollow corridor bereft of everything but height. Here, the work huffs and puffs to assert itself, contradicting the calm that makes it so appealing in miniature.

Ichimura's series, entitled "Moment," offers an art in which nothing happens. It does not have to. The moment—seen, seized and entered—is enough. Fragile washes of iron oxide breathe over one another. No brush work is visible. There are only subtle shifts of liquid movement, as of mists rising and descending. Surfaces seem stirred by air. There is no imagery to speak of. We see into a void, silent and still. For those with the temperament for it, his painting suggests the Buddhist Emptiness, a void of inexhaustible contents. Placid and nearly monochrome, it prompts reflection, a response that is only possible at close viewing in a conducive setting.

Shigeno Ichimura, Horizon

My companion at the gallery resisted: "It just looks like a slice of rusted metal." Yes and no. Ichimura captures the appearance of rust with veils of red-brown pigment, flecked with black or tinged with siennas that range from orange to gold. Separated from any recognizable object, the associations we have with oxidation—dissolution and its escort, mortality—give way to something else. Suggestions of renovation emerge. Disintegration, testimony to impermanence, is part of the unending process of becoming. Corrosion touches and transforms all things of earth. William Blake would have had no difficulty seeing the world in each particle of rust.

At Tower 49, the prerogatives of a corporate hall overwhelm the delicacy of Ichimura's touch. Grace is lost. What is left on these over-sized canvases, made to order for the space, are the pretensions of Abstract Expressionism with none of its vigor. The strain of maintaining a gossamer touch over so much acreage begins to show. Things look less like calls to meditation and more like … well, mixed media. Nine paintings, swollen to 8 feet and hung high overhead, are as compelling as acoustic panels. And as unbeheld. Three thousand people a day shuttle through this space without looking up. Only if the elevators are stalled can they take Ichimura's suggestion to "stop and contemplate for a moment."

Contemplate what? A secular age drains contemplation of its life's blood. The de-sacralizing of meditation in contemporary culture turns work like Ichimura's into a soothing backdrop to something else, hygienic and decorative. Divorced from its spiritual and religious ends, contemplation—like yoga and sand-painting—is enlisted to serve utilitarian intentions. Staying young, losing weight and relieving stress are among the profane benefits of a state of prayer. In the arts, the theatre of one's own "creativity" cancels any plunge into the ego-denying emptiness of Absolute Tao.

This leaves Ichimura, an ambitious modern, in confusion over the purposes of the action he invites us to perform. "One of the central themes of my projects is the process of giving physical existence to my work. I am interested in letting my artwork exist as physical material along with its surface image." And what might his work be, distinct from its physical existence? This is boiled rice pudding, cooked to feed the notion that an artist's concept takes precedent over the work of his hands. Floating in the mush is the essential conceit of conceptual art: maybe you'll get something to look at; maybe you won't. What of it? After all that cranking and winding in the studio, the only thing that counts is the artist's own mental event.

Scrapping artists' statements is usually a sensible move. It would be good if Ichimura ignored his own and took to the Zen and Shin masters or John of the Cross. Through them, he might gain a deeper regard for the quiescence at the heart of his own painting.

M.Y. Art Prospects, 547 West 27th Street, New York NY 10001


FALLOUT FROM CONCEPTUAL FOLLIES seeps everywhere. There is no containing it, not even in what used to be called crafts. I am looking at the Summer 2003, issue of FiberArts which hit the press some time in March. The mag is full-color witness to the stunning things artists do with textiles and to some of the dumb things they say off the job. Take Sunita Patterson's regular column 67 Broadway. Typed on the cusp of the invasion of Iraq, this one is given over to "Making a Better World." So, will it be bettered by elimination of a murderous regime? No, no, nothing disorderly. The trick to improvement is feeling benign and spreading those feelings, like hot tar, over every crevice in the body politic.

Like too many—frequently women—in the arts Ms. Patterson places a high premium on emotional expression without regard to its character or target. Whether your allegiances are sound or crack-pot is beside the point. Emotion is king. She admits to being inspired "by how many people, no matter what their opinions regarding the war, have been moved to express their feelings through fiber work."

Among those expressing their feelings, were 400 congregants, aged 5 to 93, of a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania who made "peace quilts" to send to President Bush and Saddam Hussein. (The five year-old is mature enough for Hussein's children's prison, the only one of its kind in the known world.) The Revolutionary Knitting Circle of Calgary, Canada, held non-violent "knit-ins" to foster community. (Any idea what a violent knit-in might be like?) A cohort of FiberArts subscribers sent threads to be woven into a World Cloth for the Thread Project, another of those hands-across-the-sea events on which geopolitics depend.

Sentimental self-regard is never harmless. In the arts, its a loaded hypodermic. Listen to Ms. Patterson: "In the face of overwhelmingly depressing world events, so many are actively sending into the universe thoughts of concern and wishes for peace; I can't help but feel optimistic that a better world will somehow be created." Mark the word "somehow." It signals the narcosis passing for good will among the art crowd.

Thoughts and wishes? Into the universe? We are out beyond the spiral nebulae where good intentions make hankerings come true and pull rabbits from hats. Rational consideration of the ground required before peace can be built is too strenuous. Artminds slant toward gnosticism, encouraging artists to go into business as latter-day shamans. An artist can transform a toilet brush into an art object just by calling it one. Why not stuff the pressures of history into a gunny sack just by choosing to? Wish-think is a high form of creativity. It permits an artist's impulses to trump messy realities.

This is the superstition prompting Ms. Patterson to gush over "the breathtaking power of art." If only Mohammed Atta and his Saudi companions in South Florida had been the beneficiaries of art therapy. More art education, anyone?

� Maureen Mullarkey

June 2003

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