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Nizayama Art Park Power Plant Museum exhibits works by Izumi Kato and Chen Fei
Izumi Kato, “Untitled”, 2014. Wood, acrylic, stainless steel, 362 x 150 x 65 cm, 317 x 145 × 60 cm, 290 x 140 x 57 cm, 288 x 120 x 63 cm, 261 x 94 x 44 cm (5 as a set). Photo: Yusuke Sato. Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Perrotin ©2014 Izumi Kato.

NYUZEN.- Nizayama Art Park Power Plant Museum is presenting “Living in Figures”, a joint exhibition by two internationally renowned contemporary artists from Japan and China, Izumi Kato and Chen Fei, respectively. Located in the water-rich town of Nyuzen in Toyama Prefecture, the museum has been attracting visitors through its vast and dynamic exhibition space refurbished from an old water power plant. The exhibition brings the two artists together under a common interest in “people”.

“Living in Figures” comprises about 12 works by Kato and 12 by Chen, which include Kato’s recent paintings and a large sculpture over 3 meters high, Chen’s new large paintings and 1 sculpture. Despite their differences in cultural background, generation and artistic style, the two artists share a common belief in the harmonious coexistence of human beings and living organisms. Through the primordial figures and dawdling modern men, Kato and Chen, respectively, both touch upon the universal notion of people and human existence.

The following text is an excerpt from Robin Peckham’s Everyone is a Brand, which will be published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition in November.

Kato and Chen work with their material in ways that reflect divergent approaches to the origin and circulation of their characters. Where Chen Fei’s paintings are crisp, clean, and distant, produced as if to be viewed digitally as easily as in person, Kato produces his paintings through intense body effects, by rubbing pigment into the canvas.

Izumi Kato’s figures are abstract, generalized, blurry, important not for their individual personalities (and indeed hardly personal, unlike Chen Fei’s manga heroes, derived from himself and those around him) but for their collective mass and for their shared biological traits. In the universal recognizability that unites all of these disparate figures, which range from the mammalian to the reptilian and back again, what stands out is the permutability of bodies; in the sheer difference that brings them all together, something intensely human and hopefully cosmopolitan appears.

While Kato has pointed to influences ranging from Japanese pop culture to tribal masks and other forms of visual culture, they all share a tripartite structure drawing on the human, animal, and extraterrestrial. This framework makes them simultaneously empathetic, familiar, and alien. It all reads as halfway outsider and halfway schooled in the ways of art history: one particularly cervine, sculptural character on pointy sticks for legs reads as a Louise Bourgeois quotation, while other groupings of figures at various heights emit something of a reference to Nam June Paik’s techno-spirituality. Most of the paintings, which can include multiple canvases shown together, draw on the older logic of the totem, a rehabilitation of the orientalist side of high modernism executed for the sake of our new media cults.

In Kato’s most recent work, a new coincidence of composition and characterization begins to push harder on historical and theoretical issues around painting and mass media. Beginning with the large 2015 paintings shown at Galerie Perrotin in New York in early 2016, the limbs of his figures begin to play a structural role in defining the edges of color fields across the paintings. In the 2016 paintings, sets of smaller canvases combined into single compositions mean the edges of the canvases themselves play a similar role. While the depiction of the central totemic character remains the key pursuit, questions of landscape and collage begin to complicate what could have easily become simple portraiture. A step beyond the manufacturing of static cartoon characters, Kato is clearly interested in providing a rich world for his brood to inhabit, and offering them imaginative possibilities beyond the linear.

Kato’s sculpture, on the other hand, does not respond to the elemental discourse of sculpture in the same way, meaning that his sculpture and painting are connected by their shared relationship to his character production rather than by any dedication to medium specificity or art historical referentiality. His paintings came first, but his sculptures seem to bear a purer version of the creatures he brings into the world. Typically produced in wood, particularly the sacred woods of religious sculpture, his recent works are made from soft vinyl as a new material, echoing the vinyl gloves with which he makes his paintings. The reference to a flattening of temple architecture and popular toy manufacturing is as intentional as it is unavoidable: not a statement, but a simple fact about the state of the world into which his characters emerge.

Chen Fei’s work as an artist is fundamentally tied to the production of a small range of semi-fictional characters, and the further elaboration of situations in which these characters can act or, more accurately, be viewed. While the primary medium in which images of these situations are conveyed is painting, with bright acrylics on canvas, painting itself is ancillary to what Chen does. More properly, the character is the medium. He works by drawing from mainstream-leaning forms of Beijing youth subcultures, categories of which he belongs almost automatically by virtue of being a young, heterosexual, male artist in the city.

We see scenes that could be called canonical throughout the body of photography and other forms of image-making that has documented the existence of rock, indie, and other Beijing subcultures since the early 1990s: the naked female body in a public park, the backpacker, the paunchy male with the telltale red bruises of cupping, the athleisure girlfriend. Chen filters all of this through a cartoon-realist visual language that draws on manga traditions and is typified by its internal cohesiveness. Everything self-evidently belongs to a singular universe, one capable of absorbing aspects of the various popular culture systems adjacent to it while pushing its own version into the conceptual space of art. It is for this reason that Chen’s work demands that its viewers resist reading it as painting: the images should seem slippery, as if they are somehow between the gallery and the page, and that the direction of their momentum should be unclear. Better that the picture be a trap.

While it certainly plays a secondary role, there is also a small group of sculptures through which Chen Fei has experimented with bringing his work into three dimensions—a gesture at the nature of the character itself as the level on which the artist sees his medium operating. Night Owl (2011) is a more or less direct translation of his long-haired female character into an entirely new set of materials: she holds a scythe, wears a rainbow jumper in which she appears in the paintings, and stands in a familiar patch of mushrooms.

Fast forward to Chen Fei’s most recent work, from the first half of 2016, his paintings are beginning to look a lot more like painting. They are, of course, not painterly, but they increasingly ask to be understood as painting through allusions to that tradition: we see a solo pieta, a figure contrapposto, a memento mori. (These historical allusions stretch back as far as 2013’s Renaissance in the Bush.) This is an extension of one of Chen’s most clever tactics: the reference to his medium within the work, stretching from tattoo ink to, now, marble sculpture. We might consider his work as an effective if unsubtle gesture: the indiscriminate insistence of marking “Chen Fei was here,” not in tree bark or on the side of a train but in visual culture or the flow of time itself, as he himself has scratched the phrase in blood on the back of his female protagonist as she surveys a clear, snowy day.

All of which is to say that artists like Kato and Chen are active on the productive, progressive, constructive side of culture today; they borrow from the mechanics of pop and the consumption patterns of neoliberalism, and they aim to create new possibilities where none existed before. Rather than attacking popular culture, they build new popular cultures of their own, however small, that occupy a particular position within the broader ecology of the global mass media. Because of the new shape of our media world, this can happen now. They’re simply waiting for the logic of the art world to catch up.

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