KIMONO REBORN by MAYUKO OKADA
KATE OH GALLERY
31 East 72nd Street, NYC
May 30 – June 20, 2023
by Robert C. Morgan, Ph.D.
At the outset of my comments on the poetic installation works by Japanese artist Mayuko Okada, I would like to mention the importance of Kate Oh’s list of exhibitions involving many first-rate artists. Her discreet awareness of fine art constitutes an important counterpoint to the so-called “art world” in coming to terms with the qualitative aspects of contemporary art. Gallerist Kate Oh helps her audience see and understand the function of work that could, in many cases, represent some of the truly significant art of our time.
Having recently seen Mayuko’s current exhibition in some detail, on its final day, I would suggest the over-riding concept of her show constitutes a host of unexpected visual forms, given primarily to the transformation of kimono textiles in a host of ingenious ways, largely focused on stuffed fish, many of which resemble the Koi fish in Japan.
The show’s title, “Kimono Reborn,” suggests a form of re-birth, which becomes evident as we gradually move throughout this remarkable mid-town exhibition. The inextricable presence of the kimono in its various degrees of transformation surpasses the common look of kimonos worn in the everyday world. From an aesthetic point of view, it is the textiles that are made important, as they are reasonably altered in accordance with the wishes of the artist, Mayuko Okada. In opposition to their everyday function, the grace of the kimono is transformed in such a way as to give her work another form and content that comes closest to the meaning of the artist’s formative narration.
Much of this goes back to her family history beginning in the early twentieth century. Mayuko has explained that her great-grandmother was recognized by many as a master of textile design and artistry, thus offering a clear understanding of how kimonos should be designed and properly made. Her artistry was passed along indirectly to her grandparents in Kyoto, which included her grandfather (b. 1910), a medical doctor, and her grandmother (b. 1924), a shopping queen who became a significant collector of kimonos.
As the first grandchild of both grandparents, Mayuko respected her grandfather's persistence in his medical career, which included a frequent desire to spend time with him relaxing in his traditional Japanese garden. But, most of all, she was eager to learn
about kimonos from her grandmother who maintained a family collection of traditional Japanese garments from the past. Mayuko often enjoyed being photographed side-by-side with her grandmother, both wearing their kimonos.
As her career began to progress, Mayuko's interest in advanced art also became more apparent. Her attention her beginning to focus increasingly on her grandmother’s kimonos, this propelling her imagination her to go beyond their identity her as a series of
garments to be worn. In doing so, she sought to transform designs from decades past as garments strictly to be worn as a means of physical adornment and instead allow them to function within the context of the creative arts.
The question might arise as to whether or not this action is deemed significantly aesthetic. It would seem that the only person capable of answering this question would be the artist herself. In fact, Mayuko is making a statement as to how familiar forms are suddenly no longer familiar. This is where art takes over from the assumptions of the past and where history gets redefined as a place we know only because we have shown the courage to try it. Indeed, Mayuko has revealed something new to us, something that gives us another outlet as to who we think we are. In doing so, the aesthetic contours of her family’s artistry are replaced by new painterly and sculptural strategies that tell a story that could not have been told easily otherwise.
Robert C. Morgan, Ph.D. is a painter, art critic, curator, and art historian who lives and works in New York City. Author of many books and literarily hundreds of essays and reviews on contemporary art (translated into twenty languages), Dr. Morgan received the first Arcale Award in Art Criticism in 1999 presented by the Municipality of Salamanca (Spain) and was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg, 2011. He is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Robert C. Morgan, Ph.D.
B.A. Alexander, PhD
Where Western Utilitarianism Meets Eastern Tradition
B.A. Alexander, PhD
Reminiscent of ethereal landscapes from a bygone age, the weathered fabric of the kimonos holds stories hidden in the mystery of the past. For Mayuko, the Japanese-born artist at the center of Kate Oh Gallery's summer show " Kimono Reborn,” this fabric
is a canvas yearning for reincarnation. Mayuko's goal is to transform it into something that transcends the boundaries of traditional artistic media, something that is not just an echo of the past but also a marker of the present.
Striving to transcend the customary confines of artistic mediums and crafts, while avoiding the contemporary trappings of the avant-garde, her works are a testament to " reconstructive postmodernism," creating a dialogue between the aesthetic practices of
the past and her innovative interpretations. Her flowing fish of fabric, an artistic interplay of painting and sculpture, weave a story of perpetual metamorphosis, sometimes reflecting silvery-cream hills, sometimes revealing patches of old weaves. It is here that the spirit of the fabric unfurls itself, inviting viewers into a realm beyond the flat canvas arts, creating a dynamic interplay between the second and third dimensions.
But Mayuko's artistry does not negate the inherent nature of her chosen medium. The textiles, with their richly patterned wagara, remain intrinsically linked to their historical and utilitarian roots. The kimonos, in their transformation from everyday wear to fine art,
engage in a dialectic with the observer, as well the philosophical principles of Western postmodernism, while maintaining the freedom and aesthetics of her Japanese homeland.
But this philosophical import is only an effect, not an essence, for in Mayuko's crafty hands, her fabric becomes a canvas of a temple, injecting a religious dimension into the themes of this show. For instance, the moon casts an alluring spell over the rolling fabric
hills in one of her compositions, seemingly caught in a dance between the realms of painting and sculpture. These creations twist and turn, mimicking the form of silvery-cream landscapes, interrupted occasionally by the moonlit blue-grey patches of ancient weaves. Here, the spirit of the fabric discloses itself, drawing the viewer into a space beyond the orthodox two-dimensionality of canvas arts and reaching into the third dimension of sculpture and installations, as if in a sudden reincarnation of the soul. It is important to note that as an artist, Mayuko respects the integrity of her chosen medium. The textiles in her pieces, with their intricate wagara patterns, refuse to disown their historical origins. They bring a dynamic dialogue between past and present to the artwork, reminding viewers of their evolution from ordinary to extraordinary - much like the Koi fish often featured in her work -- which is in fact a key symbol of perseverance in Japanese culture.
They are frequently mirrored in Mayuko's art, illustrating a narrative of transition from the mundane to the sublime.
This unique personal aesthetic philosophy is even more revelatory when we consider the artist's background: Her great-grandmother was a master of Japanese tailoring and her grandmother an enthusiast collector of prismatic kimonos. She states this as her primary motivation, "Antique kimonos have beautiful fabrics and patterns, as well as woven stories and histories. I pay respect to these materials and strive to create unique art pieces that showcase the charm of authentic kimonos to a wider audience." It is indeed in such widening moments of authenticity that Mayuko reveals her materials and, simultaneously, it is here that we move away from the putative two-dimensionality of painting, drawing, to the domain of sculpture and installation. But this is not where we stay, as the textile—springing forth from its utilitarian heartland—is an entirely different medium than painting. It does not disrobe itself of its history, instead, we allow it to cull its traditions by exposing itself via ornate decoration. Mayuko hence performs a tripartite act -- a rapprochement between three different aesthetic modes, and through this,
achieves a beautified union between Western philosophy and Eastern tradition.
Ekin Erkan, PhD
Mayuko Okada’s Tribunal of Categories: The Kimono Come to Life
by Ekin Erkan
Mayuko Okada creates works from antique kimonos, weaving patterned narratives that are reminiscent of ukiyo-e scenographies. Okada’s great-grandmother was a master of Japanese tailoring and her grandmother an enthusiast collector of prismatic kimonos. Mayuko’s works are deeply unique for their defiance of medium-specificity, spurning textual narratives and dimensional sculptures alike. The orbular moon looms large throughout, sometimes crowning silvery-cream hills that careen and lurch; occasionally, these hills peak into blue-gray, patches of weavery making themselves known. This is when Mayuko reveals her materials and, simultaneously, it is here that we move away from the putative two-dimensionality of painting, drawing, and the canvas-arts to the domain of sculpture and installation. But this is not where we stay, as the textile—with its utilitarian origins—is an entirely different medium that also plays an important role in Mayuko’s work. It does not disrobe itself of its history, instead culling its traditions by exposing itself via ornate wagara. Mayuko hence performs a tripartite act, a rapprochement between three different aesthetic modes. She also sublates traditional categories, making that which is wearable and thus purposive—the kimono, with its rich history (one interwoven with the history of the ukiyo-e courtesan), baptized a-new.
The rolling hills are one of Mayuko’s figurative pieces, as is a piece featuring a swirling group of circling koi fish, a number of which are flattened and one which illuminates in a gold coat. From this unspools a series of truly wonderous semi-abstract works. A personal favorite involves different kimono cloths woven and tied in blood-crimson ribbons evocative of blood.
There is something peacefully violent here—but mutedly so. The string binds like a tourniquet and the kimonos remind us of both stacked cloths and globular fish drying at the open-air market. Fish are a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition, sometimes freely floating,
sometimes squelched like carved armatures. Their organicity is counterposed with the dead media of textiles, the latter only brought to life when worm. This all suggests the kind of movement that Marjorie Strider’s breakage from two-dimensionality so often evoked in her
infamous “build-outs” and foam installations.
Mayuko certainly flouts the fruits of plurality, fittingly deracinated from Modernist medium-specificity conceits. According to Greenberg and those who followed his Modernist idiom like Michael Fried, the great path of Modernism involves artists examining the nature of their choice art form. For, as so brilliantly recounted by Arthur Danto and, in his analyses of Danto, Noel Carroll, before Modernism was the examination of verisimilitude that Renaissance artists and the Greeks before them had implored. But with the advent of photography and,
shortly after, cinema, representational realism had been achieved—and not by painting. This great march towards verisimilitude had, nevertheless, offered pre-Modern artists something to aim towards and critics could judge these artists’ pursuits by way of their results, evaluating how close the paintings were to representations of reality. Successor frameworks like
expressivism and formalism did not allow for such targets. It was only with Modernism’s
imploration of medium-specificity, induced by Manet’s pre-impressionist flattening technique—which was taken to greater heights by Cubism and then brought to its logical conclusion by Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Hard-Edge Painting, and Field
Painting—that we again saw artists seeking out a pursuit that could be evaluated by way of its
results. This pursuit was the examination of that which was inherent to the medium. Following Greenberg, as far as painting was concerned, what was really being uncovered was that which was unique to the canvas as such—its two-dimensionality and its edges. With Morris Louis’
dipped canvases, we saw the apotheosis of this tribunal. In other art forms, like sculpture, artists like Lynda Benglis similarly pursued that which was inherent to sculpture, and filmmakers of the Structuralist movement examined that which was putatively inherent to the
Then, contra the shibboleth of Modernism, Andy Warhol’s 1964 Brillo Boxes opened up the post-historical aperture. Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, presaged by Duchamp’s Dadaist readymades, revealed that something perceptually indiscernible from its real-world counterpart could be a work of art. But why? Because it was about something, claimed Danto—yet how these works embodied what they were about was not something we could answer just by appealing to its perceptual qualities. Rather, we had to onboard ideas and theories to explain what makes the Brillo Boxes an artwork and not those found in the supermarket. Philosophy took over that which perception qua art had exclusively been
apportioned, delimiting what artwork qua artist could achieve. This was, to quote Danto, “the death of art.” In his dual act, Warhol opened up the post-historical period of art that continues on to this day. Artists were freed from Modernist examinations of their choice media and freed
to pursue pluralist exercises: artists could deliver poetic, political, or sensuous works. But artists could also, as Mayuko demonstrates, also dovetail different artforms and media. And it is this invention—these kinds of sublation-acts—that Mayuko’s art shows us in full force. She takes that which we would have traditionally regarded as purposive, the textile used (viz., purposed) for making garb that would be decorously worn, and turns into something purposively purposiveless: fine art. She also, culling Strider’s spirit, breaks free of flatness as such while still engaging it (with her occasional flattened fishes). Mayuko shows the fungibility of traditional medium-categories. That is, Mayuko’s works are about the kimono-as-historical-art-object and her works embody their meaning by engaging transmedial ends—ones that are at once three- and two-dimensional, figurative and simultaneously abstract.