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Erina Matsui - Kawaii? Or the Childhood of Art
Erina Matsui, Gattai, 2006, Photo: Tal Lacman. © 2006, Erina Matsui.

BARCELONA, SPAIN.- As part of the cycle “Kawaii! Japan today” dedicated to young Japanese artists, the Espai 13 is presenting an exhibition by Erina Matsui, selected by Hélène Kelmachter. This artist, aged twenty-three, is the youngest taking part in the cycle. After Aya Takano’s graceful teenagers floating indolently in a world torn between tradition and modernity, this exhibition of paintings and drawings by Erina Matsui reveals another facet of contemporary Japan: the nostalgic relationship with childhood and the difficulties experienced by the younger generation in finding their identity in a society that is in a process of transformation.

A fairy tale - Erina Matsui is a student at the Tama Art University in Tokyo, the leading institution for the teaching of visual arts. She will complete her studies in 2008, although she has already started her career as a “real” artist. When she misses classes in the university it is because she is attending the opening of a group show in New York in which she is exhibiting. Her works already form part of numerous private collections. All the paintings she exhibited in the Yamamoto Gendai Gallery in Tokyo in September 2007 were sold.

Erina Matsui is shy but at the same time incredibly determined. Exuberant but deceptively introverted, she is hesitant when talking to interviewers, but poses confidently for the photographers. This young girl full of contrasts is quite simply astonishing, and her life reads like a fairy story. Born in Okayama in 1984, she started exhibiting at the age of twenty. In 2004 she took part in the Geisai festival in Tokyo, a large show for young artists – many of them in their teens – organised by Murakami, where she won the gold medal. Among the members of the jury were Hervé Chandès, Director of the Fondation Cartier, who invited her to take part in a group show in Paris in the summer of 2005. At this exhibition, “J’en rêve”, she showed two large-format canvases, which were immediately acquired by the foundation for its own collection. Things moved quickly after that for the young artist, whose works intrigued the public and attracted collectors. Fashion designer Maurizio Galante, fascinated by Erina Matsui’s strange universe, has bought three of her paintings. Demand for her work at present exceeds what the artist is able to produce between classes at the faculty and preparations for her final diploma.

The whole universe in a self-portrait - Although still very young, Erina Matsui has developed a highly personal and forceful style of painting that is both fascinating and disturbing. In her surprising self-portraits, she depicts her face in close up, sometimes deformed by an expression that is transforming rather than attractive. The canvas I love shrimp chilli (2003), painted at the age of nineteen, is imbued with nostalgia: the artist says she was still unsure of herself when she painted it, but the experience gave her self-confidence and opened the door to future work. For Erina Matsui, representing her own face is a way of understanding the world and its mysteries. She sometimes becomes a lunar figure among the stars and constellations (Universe, 2004) or a fabled creature emerging from a carpet of mushrooms, evoking the well-known mascot of one of Japan’s largest mobile phone companies. These mushrooms are also a reference to Yumeii Takeshisa, an artist from the Taishô period (1912-1926) who used this motif in a variety of forms.

Erina Matsui often surrounds her face with toys, evoking the world of childhood that she has not entirely left behind, or sticks on the canvas a musical box playing the melody of a lullaby. Her work is the reflection of a profound nostalgia for childhood that characterises present-day Japanese society. It is a nostalgia that serves to hide the anxieties of young people who are fearful of entering the world of adults and cling on to their childhood for as long as possible. This trend can be seen in particular in TV programmes to fashion.

Uparupa for ever - A peculiar aquatic creature, with pink skin like a baby’s, appears in many of Erina Matsui’s paintings. This is Napoleon, her uparupa, a weird pink salamander who is her fetish, her companion and her confidant. It emerges from a landscape of sweets and confectionery or floating in a forest of mushrooms. This fantastical, other-worldly being that is a recurring motif in her art is also her alter ego. With its round face, tiny expressive eyes, satisfied smile, delicate hands and curious sort of crown, this uparupa is a fascinating, seductive yet disturbing creature, like all this artist’s work. Erina Matsui is not altogether typical of the Kawaii or girlie trend that is invading the lives of young Japanese and has even entered the world of art. Although her drawings reflect the influence of the manga in the works that transform childish faces with huge eyes, most of her art is a long way from this “cutie” aesthetic. Its seduction lies in the peculiarity and the indefinable strength that emanates from her painting. For Erina Matsui, a work of art must surprise and provoke the excitement of discovery. She says she would like to produce paintings that are as exciting as opening Christmas presents. Gifted with a precocious talent, Erina Matsui is one of the many artists to be watched in the contemporary Japanese art scene. Her work needs to be seen right now.

This exhibition in the Espai 13 is Erina Matsui’s first solo show outside Japan. It contains around twenty works, one of which will be painted by the artist while she is at the Foundation. The exhibition has been organised with the collaboration of the Yamamoto Gendai Gallery in Tokyo.

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