Tomoko Konoike

Distilling the Natural. Imagining the Unnatural.

catalogue essay for Tomoko Konoike, Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco, 2013
Tomoko Konoike - Earthshine (2013)

How does one look at a painting from Japan? What is discernibly Japanese about it? Tomoko Konoike’s work definitely has a Japanese quality, due equally to the mythological symbolism of her fantastic scenarios, and to the delicacy and precision of her brushwork. Looking at her paintings makes me conscious of the legacy of Japanese image making, which informs her art. As I ponder the vibrant worlds within her frame, I am transported to a greater depth of Japanese visuality—wherein Western binaries of figurative/abstract, representational/symbolic, formal/textural, no longer seem applicable.

This sensation of being shuttled between visual modes: how might I qualify it? When I contemplate a map of Japan, I imagine a single swirling line of ink, ascending diagonally right across a blue page. This is the figurative becoming abstract. And when I stare closely at a single brush stroke on a 17th Century byobu (folding screen) I imagine the contours of one of Japan’s many islands. This is the abstract becoming figurative. The binaries are never fixed: there is only the ceaseless flux between their polarities.

Tomoko’s work embodies this finely calibrated balance between the microcosm of material incidents and the macrocosm of gargantuan form. Her organic, dancing lines of ink and paint depict dynamic forces and elemental conditions on a fluctuating scale. Her wide range of hyper-figurative paintings and sculptures result from her longstanding contemplation of mythic cultural templates, traditional art practices, and imagined entities that dwell in the cosmos.

Her most recent work Earthshine is a byobu, painted mostly in black on a white background, and delicately flecked with fine gold dust. The byobu’s panoramic scope traditionally functions to create a geographic experience for one seated in a room’s interior. More than a ‘window onto the world’, byobu and fusuma (sliding screens) screens distil essential details of the natural world. Indoors, they are transformed into an ocular dimension for the mind’s eye. The screens’ depictions are not about what is represented, but about the moment viewers become conscious of their visual elements. Thus, the armoury of Western analytic logic is rendered irrelevent. Void governs horizon, as the screens often employ vast terrains of flat colour. Shape denies depth, as the brushwork’s materiality of single flower petals is more palpable than one’s registering of the flower’s form. Nature is latent while experience is manifest. Tomoko’s stunning vistas encapsulate this tradition, and voice her unique sensory attenuation to natural and metaphysical elements.

In Earthshine, a giant human skull takes centre stage in an engulfing horizontal display. This skull juxtaposes European vanitas and the blank demeanour of Noh theatre masks. Tomoko’s careful shading of the skull’s curves performs a ballet of penumbral clouds and smoky vapours, suggesting that there is more to the skull than it’s material existence. It hovers with all teeth intact and eyes brimming with inviting blackness; less an apparition and more a visitor to our realm. Golden powder is exhaled from its yawning mouth, providing a low-lying gilded fog floating across all eight screens. Uncanny charcoal bolts emerge from the mouth, like lightning in negative, or ectoplasmic shards twined with rough fibres.

A skull is not the byobu’s only inhabitant. To the left, a wolf with small, nubile legs and a tail morphed into a slug-like tongue. To the right, an explosive genetic encounter between another creature whose legs sprout hybrid wings of moths, butterflies and dragonflies. European pictorial traditions would align these figures with the chimera, a monster cursed by its unfitting heterogeneity, and excluded from categorical citadels of beauty. The Symbolists rewrote the manual on chimerical form by exploring its sexual, erotic and psychological potential when painted with dedicated illustrative fervour. Inspired by fevered poetry seeking to sensationalise the darker side of the imagination dismissed by the Enlightenment, European symbolism bears the roots of Western transmogrification and modern monstrosities.

But European Classicism and Japanese Classicism do not relate to one another systematically. In a culture where figuration and semiotics often bear fruit which looks familiar, yet tastes alien, a rose is never a rose in Japan. The ‘ideal’ in Japanese culture has, at best, been no more than the heightened awareness of the transience of beauty: a single brushstroke or a gnarled tree root might contain a universe of beauty whose electrifying materiality synaptically hot-wires the sublime.

Tomoko’s hybrid forms defy Classical ideals of beauty, and depict a broader acceptance of what we could consider a beautiful mutation. Her neo-wolves and neo-butterflies are post-human symbols of the greater potential for existence. The works in Earthshine reflect Tomoko’s salient contemplation of how natural forces collide and find peace with one’s consciousness. Her paintings are not simply a rich fantasy world, or a neo-Surrealist dreamscape, but a deeply traditional pondering of post-human awareness.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Tomoko Konoike.