A single stroke is not enough

Events - February 9th, 2011

No matter how you look at it, “strategically heroic” or “desperately courageous” all-or-nothing gestures are exciting to behold. In the visual arts, the thrill of such an explosive instant approach is doubly powerful given that pictures are, by their very nature, instant messages. In Asian — and more specifically Japanese — art, there is a rich tradition of the “one-stroke painting” in which one mighty brushstroke embodies it all: the subject, story, style and the structure of the image.

Lee Ufan’s exhibition of new paintings at SCAI the Bathhouse is heavily dependent upon this artistic legacy. Born in Korea in 1936, Lee has lived in Japan since 1956 and, in the latter half of the ‘60s, became a leading member of Mono-Ha, the “School of Things,” one of Japan’s first internationally acclaimed contemporary art movements. The group’s defiant artistic strategy to discard ideas and disavow artistic creativity — which resulted in rocks and other natural material placed in galleries with the artists hardly having modified them at all — still informs Lee’s anti-art artworks. The problem with such a philosophy is that once ideas and artistic creativity is out of the equation, one ends up with what Marcel Duchamp disdained as “retinal art,” the kind that appeals to the eye, but not to the heart nor the mind.

Regardless, Lee’s fame has grown over the years, and in 2010, the Lee Ufan Art Museum opened on Naoshima, the island known for the Chichu Art Museum that houses the collection of Benesse Holdings. The exhibition at SCAI, one of Tokyo’s premier contemporary galleries whose roster includes international heavy-hitters such as Anish Kapoor, Kohei Nawa, Julian Opie and Jenny Holzer, is a lead-up to a large retrospective of the veteran artist’s works planned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York for June 2011.

Among the old masters that created in the tradition of the single brush stroke is the celebrated Shingon Buddhist scholar and monk Jiun Onko (1718-1804), whose work immediately comes to mind when looking at Lee’s show. Jiun’s lightening-fast paintings were produced in a metaphysical realm where no distinctions exist between man, image and art. A single brushstroke by this remarkable artist-thinker could be a daring, creative high-wire act: Even his most ordinary graphic gesture, such as one vertical line, could take your breath away.

Lee’s single-stroke paintings are an attempt at such esoteric picture-making. Imagine white canvases on which the artist has painted a single brushstroke that runs from black through all the shades of gray, and you have the gist of the exhibition. To his credit, Lee has invested much into aligning his pictures within the centuries-old formula of one-stroke paintings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t guarantee anything — let alone artistic revelation — so all one sees in Lee’s homages are expensive objects made out of nothing and saying nothing.

Exactly what type of artistic nothing are we talking about? Not the wily Zen nothing, but the dreaded, “I don’t have a clue, do you?” nothing, the lowest rung on the ladder to artistic purgatory.

Clearly, with these works, Lee isn’t up to the challenge of either channeling or building upon the spellbinding accomplishments and artistry of those who have worked with single strokes before him.

The paintings’ background and brushstroke add up (or subtract down) to nothing and should never have met; the white canvases remain white canvases while the grayscale within the lone brushmark starts, transitions and ends predictably. The sizes and scale of the paintings could have gone in a number of directions, but it wouldn’t have made a difference; the gesture of the brushstroke begins and concludes within – literally – the flick of the wrist, leading nowhere? Somewhere? Anywhere? Take your pick.

It’s as if the artist has extended a direct plea to viewers to bring along their own alibi, their own explanation, for the purpose of the works, rather than offer them any real artistic merit; which is a surprise, as I know few artists of merit who would actually discuss the current state of contemporary aesthetics with their audience.

What you can say is that the exhibition turns on its head the fundamental artistic assumption that underwhelming art cannot garner fame, suggesting a remarkably valuable lesson for artists and viewers alike: that significant rewards can be had by just making an attempt.

LG Williams can be reached at www.lgwilliams.com

Exhibition: “Lee Ufan”
(till March 5)
Venue: SCAI the Bathhouse
(Nippori and Nezu stations)
Hours: 12 noon–7 pm (Closed Mon. & Sun.)
Admission: Free
More info: Visit www.scaithebathhouse.com
or call (03) 3821-1144