Crafting a Creative Course
Frederick Harris Gallery exhibitors discuss the challenges of forging a path in Japan’s art scene.
What of it, the 22-year-old David Stanley Hewett thought on the way to apply for an exhibition at a gallery in Tokyo, if some stray, paint-stained fingerprints marked the backsides of his canvases?
“In a foreign context, that would be kind of cool,” says Hewett, 54, of his naïve understanding of the art business back in 1988. “It’s flavor. But for Japanese [galleries], it’s like ‘Why didn’t you wash your hands? You’re creating a product for someone.’”
The gallery rejected him. As did the next one he approached, and the next three dozen after that.
After nearly 30 years refining his techniques and forging connections throughout the country’s art world, the American speaks with confidence on the subject. Any artist (and particularly so for any foreign one) searching for firm footing in Japan must first understand the market.
“We have this sense in the West of the artist as a sort of mad scientist,” says Hewett from his Karuizawa studio, which houses his Kanazawa gold leaf-inlaid paintings, byobu folding screens, glazed ceramics and other examples of his creative talents. “Whereas here, [artists] are meant to be disciplined craftspeople. There’s less tolerance for that sort of mad scientist sensibility.”
Originally from Ohio, Hewett cites the “Art Basel banana” as a prime example of the distance separating the Western and Japanese art worlds.
At last year’s Art Basel exhibition in Miami, Italian artist and provocateur Maurizio Cattelan displayed a piece titled “Comedian” in which a ripe banana was duct-taped to a gallery wall.
“Comedian” drew capacity crowds to the three-day exhibition, a response quickly dwarfed by the viral commentary it incited online. After a performance artist removed Cattelan’s piece from the wall and took a bite (“Comedian” was quickly replaced with a fresh banana), police arrived to provide extra security.
The highest bid paid for the piece was $150,000.
“We are acutely aware of the blatant absurdity of the fact that ‘Comedian’ is an otherwise inexpensive and perishable piece of produce and a couple of inches of duct tape,” a pair of collectors said after their purchase. “We knew we were taking a risk, but ultimately we sense that Cattelan’s banana will become an iconic historical object.”
“That won’t fly in Japan,” Hewett states matter-of-factly.
In 1992, after learning from his earlier rejections, Hewett found a gallery in Kichijoji that would show his work. A few pieces caught the eye of an interior designer, who invited Hewett to enter a contest for artwork for the ongoing redesign of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel.
Then came his first big break: a 108-piece commission for the hotel’s penthouses and premium rooms. As Hewett’s name recognition grew, so did his relationships with commercial galleries (curators that actively promote artists in exchange for a portion of sales).
By 2010, Hewett had become a self-sufficient artist. He stepped away from his career in finance and relocated to a newly built home and studio in Karuizawa, from where he continues to create pieces for exhibitions, including one at the Club’s own Frederick Harris Gallery in 2018.
“That all comes once you have a name,” Hewett says.
At the Frederick Harris Gallery, exhibitions from established and emerging talents alike give Members the opportunity to view some of the most refined as well as raw works to be found anywhere in Japan.
“We try to exhibit high-quality art and introduce Members to a variety of forms,” says Member JoAnn Yoneyama, chair of the gallery’s committee.
Curated by Member volunteers, the Frederick Harris Gallery is free from many of the peculiarities of the Japanese art market, explains Member Noriko Kashiwagi, a professional appraiser and curator with experience at galleries and museums in Tokyo and New York City (she also leads explorations of Tokyo’s contemporary art scene through Connections’ enrichment classes).
One of those idiosyncrasies, Kashiwagi notes, is a reliance on impressionism as the standard-bearer for the entire market of nontraditional art.
“If you were to go to corporate museums, you see so much [impressionist art],” Kashiwagi says. “[Takeshi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama] were not impressionists, so it was hard for scholars, curators and collectors to accept them 30 years ago.”
Japan’s rental galleries provide one way around these institutional norms. For hire by the hour, day or week, these galleries offer emerging artists the opportunity to show their work to the public—provided they can afford it.
For Kansai-based kiri-e papercutting artist Sayaka Imai, a rental gallery in downtown Osaka in 2010 was her first taste of exhibiting in Japan.
“It was about ¥65,000 for six days to rent the gallery,” Imai recalls. “I didn’t sell anything during the exhibition, but one of my mother’s friends did purchase a piece shortly after.”
An expensive first step, perhaps, but a first step, nevertheless. Alongside teaching at design colleges in Osaka, Imai continued to exhibit, including a solo show last July at the commission-based Frederick Harris Gallery.
For artists who find rental galleries too expensive and traditional galleries disinterested, there is one last path available.
“You have to establish yourself outside of Japan,” Kashiwagi explains.
“The first time I showed my teachers my work, they didn’t say it was good or bad,” says Yuki Matsueda. “They just [crossed their arms and] went ‘Hmm.’”
While pursuing a doctorate in design from the Tokyo University of the Arts, Matsueda, 40, developed what would become his signature style: three-dimensional, acrylic wall sculptures. His most popular pieces today include his “Super Egg” series, which feature yolks shooting forth from shells, and his “This Is Exit” motif, with its green, emergency-exit fleeing figure.
“I thought I had created something original, but at the time, my pieces just weren’t being acknowledged,” Matsueda says of his early lack of exposure. “It was worrying.”
To be sure, the Ibaraki native might not strike the traditional figure of an artiste. His studio resembles a repair shop. Tool cabinets and metal shelves line the walls. A drill press and vacuum former sit toward the back.
Twice a week, Matsueda teaches the principles of sketching at a night school in Ochanomizu, but when he’s at work in his studio, Matsueda prefers coveralls and says he has never felt drawn to traditional arts, Japanese, Western or otherwise.
Shortly before graduation in 2010, Matsueda joined a group exhibition in Tokyo. There, a young woman from South Korea introduced herself (she would later become Matsueda’s manager). Her advice was straightforward: show your work outside of Japan.
“The Japanese market is so narrow and there’s such a strong bias [for certain genres],” Matsueda says. “It can bury a lot of possibilities. Showing your work in places where sentiments and ways of thinking vary is better, I think.”
After his first solo exhibition in Seoul in 2011, Matsueda seemed to attract more overseas interest. He exhibited in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Berlin and New York City. Alongside increasing sales and international recognition, Matsueda’s reputation among domestic galleries finally began to flourish.
“Little by little, things picked up,” says Matsueda, who exhibited at the Club in January 2019.
With growing recognition comes an inevitable dilemma: should the artist do what sells or continue to follow the inner compass that led them to success?
In Hewett’s case, he has only one exhibition scheduled for 2020 and plans to spend the rest of the year at work in his Karuizawa studio. Matsueda, too, intends to experiment with larger frames, more complex acrylic forms and more intricate printed designs.
“That’s the beauty of contemporary art,” Kashiwagi reflects. “They’re living artists. You follow how they change.”
Words: Owen Ziegler
Frederick Harris Gallery: upcoming exhibition schedule