Gardening with Oscar Oiwa

by Marilyn Zetlin

    Oscar Oiwa is a Brazilian artist of Japanese heritage currently working in New York. He is not the first artist to record the impact of globalization but is among the most accomplished of them not only for his considerable skill as a painter but for the complexity of his view of the transformations that have occurred as a result of unbridled extreme of human ambition. He reflects on the passive acceptance of change and the gradual deformation of the environment, especially of cities, the tight-knit human-built megalopolis that refers to no specific city but instead suggests many. He does not simply scold and accuse. He shows us a world in which cultures fuse, with some overpowering and contaminating others. He makes beautiful paintings about cultural collision, environmental degradation, dehumanizing slums, and violence through attrition. His vision seems to portray the penultimate moment, a world on the precarious edge of oblivion.

    Oiwa was born and grew up in São Paulo, has lived in Tokyo, London, and now the United States. His formal training was as an architect. His work as a painter draws from these experiences reflected in both the content of his work and the ways in which he paints. Influences visible in the work come from Japanese art--- both the high art of daimyo culture and contemporary manga, and from the West in varied forms including Anselm Kiefer, science fiction film, Claude Monet, even an echo of the late paintings of Philip Guston.

    Oiwa works in modules, each panel 227 x 111 centimeters. While living and working in Japan, he used the dimensions of the traditional tatami: 91 x 182 centimeters. But when he moved to London in 1996, he translated this idea into English by opting for the size of the British sheet of plywood. He lines up the panels edge to edge, to make paintings from one to six panels. The system is not only convenient for shipping and storing, it takes advantage of the benefits of a grid, giving a sense of order against which Oiwa's panoramic and often apocalyptic vision unfurls. Recording and even celebrating globalization has many precedents in art. A tradition in Japan that flourished in the late Momoyama and early Edo periods (about 1550-1610) was the namban byobu. These are painted, richly decorative, exuberant folding screens the pictorial content of which is the arrival of the so-called Southern barbarians. More than five centuries ago, painters were fascinated by these foreigners. Their arrival marks one of the many points along the line that has led to the globalization that now unifies the world, perhaps in a wrestle-hold more than an embrace. The namban byobu record the disembarkation of the Dutch merchants who came to Japan when the imperial rulers finally succumbed to the temptation of trade with the West. The rulers of Japan foresaw commerce with Europeans as a chink in the medieval armor that they still wore in internecine battles. Ensconced in xenophobia and a code of honor that was already proving to be anachronistic, they feared that the introduction of European goods, accompanied by the Europeans themselves with their barbaric gaijin customs, would threaten their culture. They were right, of course. The paintings do not foreshadow the changes that would be introduced with the opening of Japan. The artists delight in the outlandish foreigners whom they chronicle, in their odd costumes, long noses; ruddy faces, boats that ride so high in the water, guns that emit puffs of smoke.

    Oiwa evokes the byobu screen with his line-up of multiple panels. He also transmits the exuberant, often sinuous composition and rich color that characterizes this form of painting even before the blue-eyed devils appeared on the scene. He uses multi-point perspective from the Japanese screen and scroll, a system of depicting space that is similar to isometric perspective used in architecture so that one can see both exterior and interior simultaneously. But he also uses Western compositional devices. Tunnel-like spaces with beamed ceilings that seem to measure the space recall the work of Anselm Kiefer. The long horizontal format and all-over activity recall the work of Jackson Pollock, with no real illusionistic space but instead a shallow trestle of space that one often reads from the bottom up. This direct frontality is less common in Oiwa's work than is a spatial approach that places the viewer hovering above what is usually a cityscape. Claude Monet's monumental Water Lilies comes to mind, the horizontal format, the atmospheric effects expressed so beautifully in paint.

    Oiwa's paint application has increasingly loosened up. Now he is making the surface from calligraphic marks that build up, and the rhythm is increasingly more rapid. He is gaining confidence, has hit his stride in technique and creation of the metaphors that convey his meaning. He has consumed the knowledge that Monet offers and made it his own.

    A sense of loss permeates these paintings. If the Hudson River School gave way to a celebration of industrialization, a moment noted in painting by Jason Cropsey whose image of the river shows a wisp of smoke coming from factory chimneys upstream, then Oiwa takes that shift to the post-industrial era, to the brink of breakdown. If the work were not so blatantly beautiful, it would be despairing to contemplate it.

    Oiwa draws his content from current events. Living in teeming cities, Oiwa sees these events right outside his window. He reads about DNA and tanks on adjacent pages of the daily paper and both appear in DNA. He paints air pollution like a Renaissance painter uses aerial perspective. But you can taste and smell the fetid air that shimmers over the cities. In Meat Market: Hunting, he shows a clearing in the jungle in which maps of countries are being dried like pelts, military trucks are being used as transports, and cocaine is being processed. In Beautiful World Meat Market, his reading of the news suggests to him the abattoir, with the cuts of meat in the shapes of the countries or continents of the world for sale for ghoulish consumption.

    In Black Snow, one of Oiwa's most luscious and exuberant paintings, a burning river snaking its way through the composition and among the rickety houses of what could be the outskirts of Havana (the carcasses of automobiles complete that association), a Brazilian favela, Juarez, or a makeshift neighborhood in almost any overheated city in the world. It suggests the Heiji monogatari emaki, the thirteenth-century six-panel screen, an epic painting that depicts the burning of the Sanjo Palace in the midst of war. Oiwa shows us a war without soldiers, without bombs. It is a war of survival, a world gasping for breath.

    Oiwa is inspired by current events. Yet his themes, like his approach to painting, are universal. The image of the garden, sometimes conspicuous by its absence, pervades his work. It is both a nostalgia for nature and its loss and a metaphor for enduring cultural values that float above the desacralization that accompanies the destruction of nature. It is interesting to think of Oiwa's garden side by side with Monet's. The similarities underscore the differences. Monet's landscape is serene to the same extent that Oiwa's, just as beautiful, is disturbing. Monet depicts a garden that delights, an inviting retreat from the cares of the ordinary world. Oiwa crowds his with the detritus of a world overflowing with broken machinery and derelict houses: the garden becoming a dump. The palpable air of Monet's painting is made visible by nothing more noxious than moisture. We know that breathing the air of the Oiwa urban world is something to be undertaken at one's own risk.

    White House Garden, about the war in Iraq, is also about greed that takes the form of black oil that a lawn sprinkler sprays in a spiral. He sees the self-destructive impulse imbedded in human creativity, the noxious fumes as well as the grandeur of ambition. But this insight does not eclipse his ability to winnow out beauty and to portray it in spite of the harshness of the present reality. Forecasting the news, Oiwa painted Landscape with Moon, a two-panel work that depicts an enormous wave about to break against a volcano. The wave and surging earth form two adjacent triangles, two forces of nature about to collide. The vision is nature before the garden, a vision of a primordial world in its violent beginnings. This painting complements his elegiac Vulcão (Volcano), painted in response to the disaster of September 11, 2001. The sense that destruction mirrors creation certainly takes the long view, sees the detail of human effort as minutiae in the Vishnaic sweep of time. But Oiwa's great wave proved to be more than a reflection on the scale of time, creation and destruction, and more than an art historical reference. It is not only a response to the news but a foretelling of it.

    In Pooch, a six-panel work completed at the end of 2004, Oiwa creates a sweeping image of the city weighted under extreme environmental desecration. War and violence are only implicit. Hovering above the city is the pooch of the title, a black dog lost in the maelstrom of urban pitilessness, its eyes reflecting white as if in a police searchlight. At the extreme right, a tree gasps to survive, a vine--- or giant snake--- wrapped around it. It is the postmodern Garden of Eden in which even the tree of knowledge is an endangered species. It is the tree of Michelangelo's Expulsion. Oiwa seems to be painting the tree and the garden after temptation is no longer the issue. The knowledge that the Biblical tree held so close was that of immortality. Mankind seems to have discarded that knowledge in a Faustian bargain, becoming an inventor and builder unto his own destruction. Oiwa presents instead the challenge of survival after an excess of knowledge, fueled by hubris, has led humankind toward an ecological dead end.

    The garden is nature tamed and dominated to produce for human consumption and delight. In the evolution of culture, sustenance from hunting and gathering and then nomadic herding were largely supplanted by agriculture. Working the land, people became rooted in one place. No more following the buffalo or giraffes across the plains, no more herding the goats and sheep. These earlier cultures, whose means of survival required movement across vast territories, were, inevitably, aggressive as they intruded on the turf of competing groups. Hunters are killers; herders are invaders of the land of others. Agriculture is, or could or should be, conducive to peace. But the gardens of Oiwa's paintings,stifled by the pollutants of industry and population compression, promise exhaustion rather than peace.

    Population compression is apparent in the works, yet no figures appear in Oiwa's work. They are implied by the teeming human occupation, by grids of windows in skyscrapers, by the by-products of human genius. And the observer, cast as voyeur, adds human presence. If figures were depicted, they would most likely resemble the characters of Amores perros, the brutal film of Alejandro González Iñárritu. It would be too much, and Oiwa is canny enough to forebear.

    The paintings, too, pay homage to the ingenuity of human survival. The makeshift is a form of invention. At the same time that houses are crumbling, elsewhere in the same painting Oiwa shows construction in progress. Further, Oiwa's images are not without humor. Even White House Garden, the most explicit indictment of exploitation, bears the mark of the comedic with its depiction of the White House as a garden folly.

    Occasionally the beauty of the city predominates in Oiwa's vision. In Night Flowers, a lyrical nocturne, Oiwa showers the air with magenta blossoms that slowly sift down over a building the glowing canopy of which welcomes its occupants back to their homes.

    The paintings present nature as a layer of floating flower forms that hover over the cities. These forms--- bursts of color that suggest simplified chrysanthemums, dandelion puffs, abstract pulses of energy--- seem to have a life of their own. They are little manifestations of optimism that is essential to survival and makes life tolerable. They are also like flower forms embroidered over the woven textiles of the richest kimono. Sometimes they suggest the durability of the hovering imagination and, always, the persistence of beauty.

    January 2005

Marilyn A. Zeitlin, director and chief curator of the Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe,AZ,USA, has previous museum experience as curator and acting co-director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Houston, texas, as well as executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts in Washington,DC, among others. Zeitlin served as U.S. Commissioner to the Venice Biennale, in 1995, curating Bill Viola.

Courtesy: Thomas Cohn Gallery, São Paulo