Yumie Kono at Rogue Gallery, Victoria, Canada (1998)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 13 May 2012
This review was previously published in Asian Art News, September / October 1998, pp. 80-1.

Yumie Kono at Rogue Gallery

Since the early 1970s, Japanese artist Yumie Kono has established herself both in Japan and in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where she exhibits regularly. Defying being type-cast as a "Japanese" artist abroad, she has, over the past 20 years made choices in media, form, and content which draw as much on traditions of Western Modernism and conceptual art as on pre-modern Asian traditions (which indeed contributed to the shaping of Western Modernism), blending them into an art of her own, inspired by the experiences of daily living. Kono represents the growing number of Asian artists establishing global art careers and whose roots and inspirations know no national, ideological, or aesthetic limitations.

The work in Yumie Kono’s recent exhibition Meander— 21 drawings with three installation pieces in mixed media— represents both a continuity and departure. While drawing proved to be perfectly portable, small-scale, economical and non-toxic medium while she was raising children at home, it has continued to be the backbone of her artistic work, even when it expanded into oil painting and installation. Her technique, while more constant has been employed in the exploration of very different themes. One period saw the serial portraits of Japanese authors who had committed suicide; another, portraits of family members based on old photographs. Kono found herself in 1995 exploring her attachments to, and memories of, her mother after she had passed away. A local observatory became, in 1985-1986, the focus of 11 drawings entitled Weather station.

Yumie Kono is an artist equally at home in color and in black and white, in large or small scale, in figurative and surreal abstraction. Her present works are studies in the confluence of slow, meditative work and the softness of different nuances of hard graphite pencils. Over time, at work on a single sheet of paper from anywhere between two weeks and several months, Kono brings forth simple forms set in flat spaces where nuance and placement in the composition rather than volume and perspective define space. In Kono’s spaces, external objects blend with inner vision, and outer blend with inner landscapes. The emphasis on such elements as rock, water, sky, cloud evokes fundamental universal perspectives central to meditative art traditions. Kono’s maze-like hills and meandering rivers evoke the monumental and philosophical quality of classical Chinese landscape painting. The bold simplicity of the composition of other works resonates like the marks of Zen painters.

Gently blending the hard graphite with a pointed eraser, the artist creates a surface so uniformly marked that individual pencil lines are rarely evident. Perhaps in reaction against the largely linear mark-making in traditional Japanese ink painting, as well as in European master drawings, and the hatching techniques she learned in art school, Yumie Kono brings the aesthetic of painting and blended colors into the medium of drawing.

Mostly monochrome, with blacks, grays, and whites, the occasional, restrained use of the color red startles in a few works. While some titles refer to the color, reading like a line out of a formalist analysis, in other works, such as History of blood, the reference resonates with the drama of a life and death narrative. The human figure represented as a white shadowy form only marks a single drawing: the only other beings conventionally considered animate in Christian culture are two portraits of animals: in Terrain-stag and Terrain-ram, close-up encounters with each animal and their startled eye contact with the viewer pulls us into the picture and proves our existence. The rest of the drawings capture timelessly undramatic scenes of flowing, shaping, and changing elements— scenes where any human presence, inside or outside of the picture, is unimportant. A koan-like question hovers here: "Does a Kono drawing exist if none comes to see it?" In trying to answer such a question, the human-centric mind clashes with the scientific mind which knows how late homosapiens arrived on the biological scene. The sense of animate life-consciousness present in the elemental portraits links European Surrealist ideas with early Shinto perceptions of nature.

In the tradition of individual artists defying their moment’s cultural and historical reigning hierarchies of artistic quality, media, style, and subject matter, a stance explored by Gustave Courbet, Marcel Duchamp, Judy Chicago, Affandi, and many others. Kono’s drawings quietly defy the low status given the medium in Western art history. With her works’ historical links to East Asian and European art histories and, most immediately, to her own visions of her world, Kono’s drawings are delicate and mysterious, putting the viewer into a quiet, listening stance, which allows the boundaries between individual and environment to dissolve for a while. And it is good that this exhibition will also show from September 12 to October 3 at Tokyo’s A SQUARE Kanda Gallery.