by Jonathan Goodman
Izumi Kato. Untitled 2015. Oil on canvas / Huile sur toile. 162 x 130.3 cm / 63 3/4 x 51 5/16 inches.
Courtesy Galerie Perrotin.
Tokyo-based Izumi Kato is a trained painter—he received his degree from the Department of Oil Painting at Musashino University in 1992—yet his work feels a lot like outsider art. In the large, elegant space of Galerie Perrotin, located on the Upper East Side, his sculptures and his rough paintings, the latter done with his hands alone, tend to look slightly out of place. Yet Kato stands up well to the perceived gap between the refined gallery and the roughly hewn wooden sculptures and raw, even coarse, paintings being shown; it may well be that Kato is seeking a directness and sincerity in his work that only a rude esthetic would accommodate. In any case, the contrast between place and art works in the artist’s favor, in large part because the difference in ambiance accentuates the semi-primitive nature of the art. A different context would not have brought this insight into play.
Izumi Kato. Untitled 2015. Wood, acrylic, soft vinyl / Bois, acrylique, vinyle souple. 118 x 28 x 70 cm / 46 7/16 x 11 1/16 x 27 9/16 inches. Photo: Ikuhiro Watanabe. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin.
As such, Kato’s art belongs to an earlier generation’s sense of alienated realism, evident, for example, in the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, or in the crude expressionism a generation ago in New York’s Lower East Side. His sculptures are arrestingly eccentric; one untitled work from 2015 looks rather like an alien on four legs painted black. The legs raise the figure into the air; it has a horizontal body and upright head with red eyes, a blue mouth, and green ears, topped on the head with straight lines indicating hair. The creature, half human, half animal, speaks to a sensibility that seems appropriate to manga and science fiction. For sheer strangeness, it cannot be equaled. But that is a major part of the point; formal quirkiness may be a way of commenting on the peculiarity of living in contemporary life, where aliens receive as much interest as recipients of the attentions of high culture. Tokyo Pop culture is particularly good at this, and Kato is a particularly inspired example of its general weirdness and slightly menacing formal expressiveness of the esthetic.
Izumi Kato. Untitled 2015. Soft vinyl, wood, acrylic / Vinyle souple, le bois, acrylique. 46 x 138 x 80 cm / 18 1/8 x 54 5/16 x 31 1/2 inches. Photo: Ikuhiro Watanabe. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin.
Another untitled sculpture from 2015, bears a distinct resemblance to a voodoo doll, with a wooden figure lying on the ground with its arms extended. Its face is mask-like—painted black, with protruding eyes and a red mouth. Standing on top of the head, the body, the arms, and the legs are small, vertical ghost-like figures with orange faces and white clothing and hoods. Like the first piece, it is a compelling example of contemporary urban primitivism, an artifact left by a tribal member whose environs consist of asphalt and concrete. The same uneasy feeling of a post-primitive vision exists in both figures, which claim a kind of no man’s land in terms of expressiveness and technical skill. Of course, there has been a fairly large push to deskill art, likely a way of rebelling against the iron grip of the market. But Kato’s odd rudimentary forms put us in a bit of a dilemma: do we take the two works as evidence of an enthusiasm for an as-yet-unknown culture, or do we see it as a canny ploy for a new esthetic, oriented toward basic, even primal, forms and emotions?
Izumi Kato. Untitled 2015. Wood, acrylic / Bois, acrylique. 33 x 32 x 8 cm / 13 x 12 19/32 x 3 5/32 inches. Photo: Ikuhiro Watanabe .Courtesy Galerie Perrotin.
To be honest, for this viewer, the paintings left less of an impression than the sculptures. Still, they are powerful examples of raw expressionism that are actually highly sophisticated, having been made by a trained contemporary artist living in a highly advanced postmodern society. This means that Kato’s adherence to roughness is a choice and not a cultural necessity imposed upon him. A large painting, also untitled and also from 2015, shows a woman with blond hair to the neck, which is circled by a blue strip. Her eyes are cherry colored, her nose and mouth schematic in their forms, and her face a sickly white. Again, there is the suggestion of an alien, although her naked breasts are obviously human. But, strangely, there are no legs protruding from the dark-colored lower half of her body—only a sweeping yellow stripe that broadens slightly as it moves downward. The exaggerated, disjointed planes of the woman’s face are macabre and disturbing; she might easily be the result of radiation from a third world war holocaust.
Another painting, again from 2015, turns the female figure’s face in a masked form that looks like a rough and ready revision of the melting flesh of a portrait by Franz Bacon. Dark green eyes are enveloped by strange white circular excrescences, with a nose that descends without a break into the mouth of the figure. Horizontal white patches emphasize the lower forehead. Again, the breasts are exposed, with the long arms and hands trailing ribbons of color (green and orange). The legs are spread apart on a dark blue-green ground. One hesitates to interpret such a curious image—its deliberate absurdity acts like a factor distancing it from the close scrutiny of Kato’s audience. Not exactly an avant-garde artist, Kato nonetheless challenges our assumptions about the way we and art history sees the figure. His imagery amounts to a dalliance with idiosyncrasy and caprice, meant to challenge our own views of what works as art. He is largely consistent—and usually successful—in doing so.