The 2009 Tsubaki-kai

by Owen Schaefer

The Camellia Society, or Tsubaki-kai, may sound more like a ladies’ afternoon tea gathering than an exhibition of contemporary art, and even more so when you find out that it is tied up with cosmetics gi- ant Shiseido, for which the camellia flower is the company symbol. But the Shiseido Gallery has an older pedigree than you might im- agine—it has been around for a venerable 90 years in one form or another—and its Tsubaki-kai group exhibitions stretch back to 1947, when the group of artists involved numbered 17 and included such luminaries as Tsuguharu “Leonard” Foujita.

In 2007, the group went into its sixth incarnation with a modest total of six participating artists and plans to run annual exhibitions until 2010. Each member artist is asked to create new works specifically for the exhibition, and only four of the six are shown together at any one time, at least until the finale show next year. The 2009 show features works by Naofumi Maruyama, Yasuko Iba, Chiharu Shiota and Masanori Sukenari.

On most days, I have fairly little time for Maruyama’s work. His pas- tel-rendered landscapes are, at times, ephemeral and heavy with nostalgia, or gimmicky with unexpected reflections and tricks of perspective, but in general, they tend to remind me of every under- graduate art project ever painted, regardless of their unusual meth- ods of production. In this show, however, Maruyama’s Ivy 1 and Ivy 2 are an intriguing addition. The works depict two trees, or rather the same tree on two canvases—each one painted almost identically, line for line. It seems to draw attention to the strangeness of the process of painting from life, questioning the ideas of artistic repro- duction, what is natural, what is copied, and perhaps even why we choose to represent the real in art at all.

Seemingly on the opposite end of the painting spectrum, Yasuko Iba is best known for painting household items, rendered in near- photographic detail. In this year’s show, Iba returns to the throw- pillows and ceramic bowls from recent works, but moves in closer, focusing on their patterns. Stand close to the canvas, and the paint and brushstrokes become abstract, unreal. But step back, and the images become glossy, photographic and instantly familiar. There is little new here in technical terms, but it serves as a strange decon- struction of the kind of images and objects we take for granted, and the unquestioned ‘reality’ of the photograph.

But the highlight of the show is Chiharu Shiota’s “Unconscious Anxi- ety.” Shiota works in almost any medium that strikes her fancy, but is best known for her performances and installations—in particu- lar, her dense web-like constructions created from tangles of black or red string. Shiota’s webs will sometimes suspend an object and sometimes obscure it; some fill a small frame, some an entire hall; but her works are always vivid, frustrating, fascinating and haunt- ing.

For this show, Shiota, too, has done something unusual. In most cases her string installations are impenetrable traps—claustropho- bic corners into which some symbol of womanhood has been inextri- cably sewn. But Unconscious Anxiety reveals hints of motion and nar- rative, and perhaps even hope. In it, an antique sewing machine sits in a black web; it is unclear whether it is the cause or the casualty. But a rough tunnel of broken threads leads outward, and in Shiota’s tangled and airless world, the piece is like a window thrown open… or like something escaped from its cage.

Finally, Masanori Sukenari’s two-sculpture installation is easily missed, since most of it is located in the stairwell that winds around the gallery. A green pipe-like structure runs from the first-floor gal- lery entrance and down the stairs into the gallery itself—both unit- ing the basement space with nature, while seeming to pipe in air at the same time. Halfway down, on the staircase landing, a single green apple sits upon a plinth. The two works seem like an uncon- scious echo of Maruyama’s tree pieces, almost literally tying the show together.

Tsubaki-kai Exhibition 2009: Trans-Figurative (to Jun. 21) Gallery: Shiseido Gallery (Ginza) 11am–7pm (Sun & holidays to 6pm, Closed Mon) Admission: free. Tel. 03-3572-3901