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Here and There :
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Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

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image image Asphalt Impressionism: Naoki Tomita at the Maho Kubota Gallery
Alan Gleason
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Tokyo (Akihabara), 2019, oil on canvas, 14 x 18 x 2 cm

When Naoki Tomita held his first solo exhibition four years ago, he seemed to have sprung out of nowhere fully formed, with a mature, instantly recognizable style. Viewing the short, thick, slab-like strokes with which he paints his oils, it's impossible not to think of Van Gogh. Tomita also shares with the post-Impressionist master some interesting polarities in subject matter: he is capable of painting riveting portraits, but his landscapes are virtually devoid of human figures. Those that do appear in Tomita's scenes are barely distinguishable, cursory sketches that blend into the background. Yet he seems genuinely interested in people, as evinced by No Job, his landmark series of sympathetic portraits of young unemployed Japanese.

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Tokyo (Shibuya), 2019, oil on canvas, 60.6 x 60.6 x 2 cm

Tokyo, Tomita's current solo exhibition at the Maho Kubota Gallery (where No Job appeared in a previous show in 2016), focuses as one might expect on the titular megalopolis. Though he grew up not far from Tokyo and attended art school there, his settings to date have been elsewhere -- his Ibaraki Prefecture hometown; Vancouver, Canada, where he did a homestay; and the coastal town of Tsunagi in Kyushu, where he spent a four-month residency at the Tsunagi Art Museum in 2018. In his renderings of those locales there is nary a human being in sight, an absence that only accentuates the bleakness of images of empty highways and parking lots, cars parked along suburban streets, all-night convenience stores, and rain-slicked city pavements.

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Tokyo (Namidabashi), 2019, oil on canvas, 60.6 x 60.6 x 2 cm

The Tokyo locations featured in the current series, too, are nearly deserted, though one can make out a few dim figures lurking on the far side of intersections or framed in the light of storefront windows. The conceit is a bit suspect considering the throngs that congregate in most of these places all day and well into the night. Tomita's night views of the city appear to have been captured during the wee hours (his practice is to wander around snapping photos with his smartphone, then replicate the images on canvas in his studio), but the depopulated daylight scenes are downright unnerving, not to mention a bit implausible.

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Tokyo (Harajuku), 2019, oil on canvas, 14 x 18 x 2 cm

Van Gogh, too, seemed averse to, or merely uninterested in, depicting human activity in his townscapes. The figures in the renowned Café Terrace at Night are like a grudging afterthought, unwelcome distractions from the bright yellow glow of the café and the deep blue of the starry sky. One of Tomita's Tokyo scenes, Harajuku, achieves an uncannily similar effect: it is night, and light radiates white-hot from a shop facing the youth mecca's celebrated Takeshita Street. A fair number of pedestrians can be seen in the lane (which is usually densely packed with strollers at any hour), but they are somberly dressed, their faces indiscernible. The picture is entirely dominated by the light blazing from the shop.

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Tokyo (Asakusa), 2019, oil on canvas, 14 x 18 x 2 cm

Whether in conscious homage or not, Tomita has mastered the Impressionist technique of using thick, rough strokes of oil paint to reconstruct scenes from real life in quasi-abstract fashion. Viewed close-up, details are nonexistent, but step back a few paces and everything leaps into magical clarity. This is especially true of a series of seven small, mostly 14 x 18 cm canvases portraying a number of Tokyo's most popular tourist sites -- a gesture, the artist says, to the upcoming Olympics. Besides Harajuku, we see Asakusa's temple gate, the brand-new National Stadium, the neon canyons of Akihabara, a Shibuya shopping street near the famous "scramble" crossing. All are spots known not only to Tokyoites but also to nearly everyone who has visited the city or read a guidebook about it. Yet in Tomita's hands they look blurred and ambiguous -- eerily lit by night, or starkly empty, in a post-apocalyptic way, by day.

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Tokyo (Nakameguro), 2019, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 x 2 cm

Among the most striking of these miniatures, not least because it diverges so much from the others, is Nakameguro, an uncharacteristic explosion of pink and white cherry blossoms in full bloom along the Meguro River. The figurative gestures are so minimal that they approach Monet's Water Lilies in abstraction, but any cherry-blossom aficionado in Tokyo will immediately recognize the location. Also offering pastoral contrast to the other urban settings is Ueno, in which the entire lower half of the canvas is an expanse of lotus leaves covering Shinobazu Pond. The haphazard green slather of the plants is reflected in the crisscross dabs of blue and white that form the sky above. Separating these wild seas of green and blue is a band of buildings standing sentinel on the far side of the pond.

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Tokyo (Ueno), 2019, oil on canvas, 60.6 x 60.6 x 2 cm

The mystery of Tomita's method is that it manages to infuse even the most desolate, decontextualized environments with an undeniable joie de vivre. Perhaps the energy emanates from his brushstrokes, so vigorous and colorful that they transform the dreariest stretch of asphalt into something transcendent. The warmth of Tomita's touch is even more apparent when his subject matter is less stark, as in a small portrait of a cat poking its head from a gap in an alley wall. The coloring, composition, and brushwork are so spot-on in the service of their endearing subject that one can't help hoping he will do a series on animals next.

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Tokyo (Cat), 2019, oil on canvas, 29.7 x 21 x 2 cm

It seems like only a matter of time before Tomita achieves the critical mass of recognition that will propel him into a major museum show. It would be nice to see a thorough introduction to his work over the past decade in one place. However, exhibitions at intimate galleries like the Kubota have the advantage of letting us appreciate his work in close proximity and at leisure. Precisely because of its small scale, the current show offers rewards that a much larger venue couldn't provide.

All works by Naoki Tomita; images courtesy of Maho Kubota Gallery.



 

Tokyo (National Stadium), 2019, oil on canvas, 91 x 91 x 2.5 cm

 

Tokyo (Metropolitan Expressway), 2019, oil on canvas, 72.7 x 60.6 x 2 cm


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Naoki Tomita: Tokyo
18 October - 22 November 2019
Maho Kubota Gallery
2-4-7 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-6434-7716
Hours: Noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; closed Sundays, Mondays, and national holidays
Access: 6 minutes' walk from Gaien-mae Station on the Metro Ginza Line


 
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for over 30 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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