UT's Ewing and Downtown Galleries Present Innovative Japanese Artists

Mention Japanese printmaking and Hiroshige's iconic depiction of a wave comes to mind, if not scenes of Mount Fuji and pagodas in the rain. However, to consider Hiroshige's almost-200-year-old image the epitome of all Japanese art would be akin to thinking that painting in France peaked with Claude Monet. Redefining the Multiple: 13 Japanese Printmakers, an exhibition appearing simultaneously at two University of Tennessee-affiliated galleries, turns that dated notion on its head.

As captivating as it is, the ukiyo-e printmaking genre ("ukiyo-e" means "pictures of the floating world," alluding to the realm of courtesans as well as peasants with parasols) associated with Hiroshige, Hokusai, and others is far removed from works on display at the Ewing Gallery through March 1, and at its Downtown Gallery offshoot through Feb. 25. In fact, the 13 featured printmakers could more accurately be described as artists who make multiples—that is, images or objects like Nobuaki Onishi's cast-resin shovel, capable of being reproduced time and again. Viewers seeing either the Gay Street exhibition or its parent show on the UT campus should be seriously awed by at least some of what's presented.

Speaking of awe, despite spending very little time in Japan, I was indelibly impressed by that culture's attention to detail and found the everything-just-so quality of daily life there fluid and graceful rather than oppressive. And pieces in Redefining the Multiple exude that heightened, refined awareness. All artists are featured at both venues, and more than 40 two-dimensional works altogether accompany the more offbeat digital video and urethane foam sculpture of Toshinao Yoshioka, large-scale installations by Koichi Kiyono and Kouseki Ono, and Marie Yoshiki's built-up ink (yes, ink!) masquerading as chocolate, lengths of lace, embroidery, and Imari-influenced dishes. One must see it to believe it.

Exhibition participants live in numerous regions of Japan, and those in their 20s present pieces alongside art by individuals in their 60s. Other than breaking from traditional approaches, many works in both shows are intriguing due to their clever, time-consuming means of production. Yet as seductive as technical marvels tend to be (think "The Lord's Prayer" etched on the head of a pin), painstakingly crafted pieces stand out for reasons beyond the difficulties involved in their realization. Although methods employed to create art are usually of interest, most art in Redefining the Multiple does not unduly emphasize materials or technique over creative expression.

A multitude of slightly convex, candy-colored discs comprise Kiyono's 147-inch-by-97-inch floor piece at Ewing, with corresponding elements on the wall above it. Like their counterparts downtown, discs varying in size are printed with assorted patterns—some look like ocean sponges and mushroom caps, whereas others suggest everything from reptile scales to funky mandalas. A number of floor discs cradle egg shapes, adding to the installation's overall psychedelic effect.

Equally challenging in visual terms is Ono's 12-foot-square grid of pieced-together rectangles. In shades of orange, magenta, teal, and purple, different sections change color as observant viewers move around the piece. Upon close examination, one sees what appear to be miniscule rubbery bristles composed of countless layers of ink. What's more, each bristle's color varies, producing a shifting, iridescent surface. Like the Fibonacci sequence reflected in spirals of pinecones and sunflowers, a mathematical essence finds form in Ono's microcosmic constructions. And his "Adabana," a screen-printed cicada shell, is nothing short of remarkable.

Yoshioka's large archival prints of perfect circles (made up of watermelon, honeydew, and other melon flesh) perhaps reference Japan's rising-sun symbol, and they complement his two mesmerizing digital videos. One shows a Mont Blanc-like object, rotating within an also-rotating, amorphous space, and the other features a more realistic-looking spinning cloud (the latter puffing away downtown).

Of course, video only fits the theme of the show in that it can be copied. Likewise, Onishi's shovel, broken stool, insect-eaten leaf, light bulb, and colored pencil can be regenerated, but as part of Redefining the Multiple they seem a bit of a stretch. Besides, to duplicate an already mass-produced bulb and pencil seems ridiculous instead of amusing.

Also noteworthy are Hideki Kimura's more-or-less abstract images with acrylics squeegeed onto layered glass. Chiaki Shuji's three large and bright pieces utilizing etching, aquatint, and dry point practically vibrate with '60s flower power; intricate shapes also resemble undulating jellyfish.

Last but not least, I'll mention subtly shaded woodblock prints by Shoji Miyamoto, with titles including "Red and Fatty Tunas" and "Birth of Sushi." Reminiscent of pictures in old children's books, they dodge easy whimsy and end up smelling like a rose-colored slice of salmon. Combining both the meticulous and the playful, Miyamoto balances contradictory elements, and in doing so, represents the quintessential Japanese artist.