The Transcendent Spirit

Lesley Kehoe Galleries
Exhibiting : Antiquorum Gallery
Level 5, The Fuller Building
41 East 57th Street
New York, NY
March 15 – 22
Daily 11 AM – 5 PM

The spiritual in art is something perhaps overlooked in the current heady atmosphere of rampant financial speculation in the art world. Lesley Kehoe Galleries’ 2014 Asia Week collection of historical and contemporary works of art celebrates the multiple manifestations of the transcendent spirit in an objective recognition of the infinite interpretations of that spirit.

In considering what unites the works and the artists selected for Asia Week, the transcendent spirit of the artist is the leitmotif that emerged. In the first instance, the selection was undoubtedly influenced by the beatitude of the included sho kannon bosatsu. Thoughts and feelings then flowed intuitively from the historical Kannon to the quietly profound moonscapes of contemporary artist Mitsuo Shoji. Is there a connection between the two? If so, then obviously it is not one of form or genre, nor shared space in chronological time. While it may be tempting to identify the relationship as one of an overriding coincident Japanese aesthetic, this is parochial and limiting, failing to acknowledge the universal in art.

The beatitude of the Kannon is naturally associated with the historical, cultural and religious identity of the bodhisattva. The moon has many interpretations, cultural, historical, mythological and subjective. However, without these, is there not an unvetted emotional response to each work? And is this not the result of the spirit, and talent, of the artist? This is a spirit that transcends the mundane, and in transforming physical material, transcends its limitations: A spirit that is the embodiment of mastery, a mastery able to synthesize human experience and translate the ineffable into a physical form with almost universal moment.

Such an understanding of art and the artist acknowledges no boundaries of period, culture, medium or artificially imposed definitions and classifications of ‘art’. We come as ingénues before the object (and both 2D and 3D work are denoted as ‘object’), free to engage without the trappings of art history, market trends and fashion, media and ‘expert’-led critique and interpretation, and without the artificial appreciation [sic] of financial speculation. In the current prevalence of conceptually driven art, we need to be reminded that beauty is not a four-letter word. Is not its manifestation, in whatever form, that which arouses in us, beyond appreciation of its physicality, admiration for its creator? Is not this ability to manifest the ineffable through the transformation of material, one of the main reasons we pay homage to ‘the artist’?

The intent is not to elevate the artist beyond the object. In much of Japanese art practice, there is a respect for the intrinsic nature of material and a self-discipline required for comprehensive and sympathetic mastery, that is prerequisite to the expression of creativity. Consummate technique is no substitute for lack of creativity, nor does it compensate for an impoverished spirit. Neither is a fecund creative spirit expressed through inferior technique. The transcendent spirit is the fusion of these.

In the group of historical works, we the see efficacy of the traditional studio system in selectively harnessing the creative and technical talents of a number of artists to create works of beauty. The artwork is the fusion of the group spirit, transcending that of the individual. This is particularly the case with the lacquer works. In perhaps one of the most remarkable examples of mastery and the transformation of material, the sap of the urushi tree (Rhus Verniciflua) populates the palette of the lacquer artist. Painstakingly applied in multiple layers to a substrate, it has created a uniquely Japanese expression of beauty. Beyond the physical surface, in a synthesis of sensual and intellectual pleasure, lies the discovery of the allusive cultural metaphors of Japanese aesthetics. In the context of the relationship between artist and object, it is noted that many, if not most, historical works are unsigned. While there are significant social and cultural factors influencing this, it gives us pause to reflect on the Western predilection for signatures, associated period and artist identification, often at the cost of an honest appreciation of the work itself.

The selected contemporary works, while illustrating the continuation of the traditions, characteristics and disciplines noted above, reflect the dominant ideology, largely imported from Western ideals of art history and art appreciation, of the artist as individual. It is in these works that we see the fruitful interplay of traditional ideas, forms and practices with contemporary expressions of individual creativity. The synthesis of life and artistic experience is expressed differently by established and emerging artists. While enjoying the relatively free expression and liberated creativity of the emerging artist, particularly evident in the case of many young Japanese artists rebelling against the hidebound art structures in Japan, we speculate on the evolution of their mature style. The established artist excites us with the authority of the work and its perceptible wisdom. Flavoured with hues of the Japanese aesthetic, each work nonetheless speaks directly to an international contemporary aesthetic.

The Rinpa-like moons of Mitsuo Shoji have evolved from Mitsuo’s many years of ceramic practice. In the transformational process of earth and water through fire and air to a solid form, Mitsuo is attuned to natural processes. Through these processes, and to the background chanting of Buddhist sutras, he expresses in material form ideas of the spiritual…the Zen enso, ‘running buddhas’ and Pythian goddesses. Applying wisdom and the mastery of experience, Mitsuo has developed a unique technique of firing for the backgrounds of his regal moons.

In a departure from the association of lacquer with boxes and functional objects, Igawa Takeshi reinvents the ancient art of kanshitsu with modern materials to create free abstract sculptures. Senior artist Imamura Yoshio, well known for his contemporary prints, creates original works with an inspiring use of mixed media that provide a window into the constantly changing natural world surrounding his home. Nakazawa Shin’ichi, also a recognized print artist, uses traditional metal foils to express his understanding of the traditional Japanese concept of space: the co-existence of complex and discrete spaces which the artist calls ‘pluralistic space’.

Japan stands pre-eminent in the world of metalwork. Time-honoured techniques, intriguing surface finishes and fine, painstaking handwork re-emerge in new forms in the work of Mitsumoto Takeshi and Kidera Yuko. Mitsumoto transforms used iron pipes into lyrical shapes reflecting elements of the natural world. Kidera Yuko transforms flat metal sheets with masterful hammer strokes into sensual female forms. Senior artist Professor Kaneko Toru confounds our ideas of metal as hard, intractable and cold with flowing forms and soft tactile surfaces. Young Nakamura Hirotomo has had early career works selected for the prestigious Nihon Dento Kogeiten, several of which are included in this exhibition. His skill with shape, silver and inlaying metal alloys suggests a prodigious talent.

The transcendent spirit synthesizes experience, embodies mastery, transforms material – is beauty.

The Transcendent Spirit
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Lesley Kehoe