Anj Smith collapses traditional definitions of portraiture, landscape and still life, allowing elements of each to coexist simultaneously.The exhibition dedicated to Tetsumi Kudo presents a selection of work dating from the first ten years that Kudo spent in Paris.
Anj Smith: Phosphor on the Palms
Hauser & Wirth presents a new series of paintings by Anj Smith, her first solo show in London since 2011. Smith has devoted three years to producing this body of work, unveiled here for the first time. Rich in detail, colour and texture, the paintings draw on a diverse range of sources. Psychological states, nature, fashion subcultures and the history of painting are just a few of the layered references operating in these works.
‘Phosphor on the Palms’ is characterised by its exploration of the liminal. The exhibition’s title alludes to the poem ‘Fabliau of Florida’ by Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), in which natural elements morph into new configurations. Smith writes: ‘Difficulties in identifying and separating out phenomena aren’t artificially simplified but embraced in all their complexities. Thresholds are hard to determine; clouds in the sky are indistinguishable from the scum washed up with the surf’. These paintings explore shifting boundaries and disintegration, encompassing death and desire, sexuality and language.
Smith collapses traditional definitions of portraiture, landscape and still life, allowing elements of each to coexist simultaneously. In a group that Smith terms ‘museum paintings’, she creates ‘portraits’ in which the sitter is not depicted, but their presence is suggested by arranged objects. Painted in the same register, disparate fragments coalesce to form a constructed identity. In ‘Night Life Galaxy’ (2013), a broken headphone, a cigarette butt and beads from a gemstone necklace are shown against a backdrop of delicately embroidered gossamer suspended in the air, with a constellation of shapes and symbols ensnared within its threads. A cross-section of the painting exposes abysses filled with miniature skulls.
In her portraits, Smith uses the figure as a device on which to hang a wider exploration into identity and social mores. In ‘Cammo’ (2015), the figure stares out at the viewer from behind heavily-tinted aviators. Its Adam’s apple is coupled with smears of different lip-glosses to confound conventional gender designations. Smith uses this androgynous figure to navigate ideas of ambiguity, anxiety and alienation. Within these works, she acknowledges how clothing is used as a tool to project a certain identity. ‘Rings Around the Moon’ (2015) features a collar derived from a couture Alexander McQueen jacket, operating as both armour and costume. Reflecting a punk aesthetic, the figure’s hair is styled with an undercut and safety pins are embedded in its clothing.
Botanical and animal imagery permeates the paintings. A spiky floral wreath – a ‘matinée necklace’ – adorns the neck of one figure, its intertwining branches and wilting petals recall a crown of thorns. ‘The Re-Wilding’ (2014) wears an ethereal chiffon cape across its back, evoking an iridescent dew-laced spider’s web, with embedded insects resembling brightly coloured jewelry. Nothing included is imagined; Smith borrows directly from nature, employing its subtle mysteries for her own purposes. A leaf-tailed gecko mimics the forest floor and a flowering plant reveals a parrot perched in its centre in place of a stamen. In ‘Elimination of a Picture’ (2015), the interlocking keratin scales of an atavistic pangolin are meticulously depicted, reflecting a tiny abstract kaleidoscopic landscape. Worn as part of the ensemble, the scaled creature hints at the intersection between defence and vulnerability.
Smith’s paintings feature uncanny interventions, which only emerge upon close inspection. An extravagant headdress in one portrait is deceptive; it is composed of curled rodents, their heavily embellished eyes gleaming red and their tales morphing into electric blue pom-poms. In ‘The Excreted’ (2014), heavy impasto slick reveals itself to be a troop of monkeys, trapped beneath the earth, whilst above ground, rendered in loose washes of pink, the apparition of a monkey clambers uphill.
Smith talks about how her work takes on the subject of painting, saying: ‘there’s something about its constantly evolving instability that fascinates me… the precarious fragility of it. Because painting’s death has been so trumpeted, and yet it limps on widely to seduce – it’s another reason why it’s an apt medium for working now.’ Smith’s enigmatic paintings owe as much to seventeenth-century Dutch vanities works and Mughal miniatures as they do to contemporary painting and the intricate complexities and mystical inspirations of Outsider Art, particularly the work of Adolf Wölfli and Richard Dadd. In Smith’s luscious visual language she embraces the instability of meaning and the complexity of its representation, which is at the heart of this new body of work.
‘In Kudo’s sculptures and assemblages [...] there was a prevailing obsession with the theme of impotence linked to nuclear attack, a penchant for grotesque renderings of the body, cut into pieces or dissolving into puddles of goo, and a science-fictional dystopian picturing of the body as part machine… Kudo’s works looked less like sculpture than like movie props from lurid science fiction films [...] I admired them greatly.’
– Mike Kelley, ‘Cultivation by Radioactivity’
Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis, Walker Art Center, 2008
This Autumn, Hauser & Wirth London will host an exhibition of works by Tetsumi Kudo (1935 – 1990) mounted in conjunction with Andrea Rosen Gallery. The installation was conceived with Olivier Renaud Clément. The exhibition presents a selection of work dating from the first ten years that Kudo spent in Paris (1963 – 1972). The seminal, room-size installation ‘Garden of the Metamorphosis in the Space Capsule’ (1968) forms the exhibition’s focal point and is shown alongside examples from his cube and dome series.
Developed in the context of post-war Japan and France, Kudo’s practice, which encompasses sculpture, installation and performance-based work, is dominated by a sense of disillusionment with the modern world – its blind faith in progress, technological advancement, and humanist ideals. His oeuvre transcends formal categorisation yet his work was consistently universal in its language.
A key figure of Tokyo’s Anti-Art Movement in the late 1950s, Kudo’s performative paintings and installations marked the beginning of his preoccupation with the impact of nuclear catastrophe and the excess of consumer society associated with the post-war economic boom. Relocating to Paris in 1962, Kudo gained recognition for his Happenings, but this exposure to the European intellectual scene also intensified his aversion to the modern agenda. This manifested in the biomorphic sculptures and assemblages that Kudo produced from 1963, in which he sought to expose the limitations of the modernist and humanist values that defined the post-war era.
In his cube series, small boxes contain decaying cocoons and shells revealing half-living forms – often replica limbs, detached phalli or papier-mâché organs – that merge with man-made items. These sculptures were intended as a comment on the individualistic outlook and eager adoption of mass-production which he found to be prevalent in Europe. The mutations are unnatural and impotent – a product of a post-apocalyptic world in which the synthentic triumphs over nature. The cube exteriors are painted as die, a nod to the idea that it is the random forces beyond our control that dictate life, rather than individual agency as western philosophy teaches.
‘Garden of the Metamorphosis in the Space Capsule’ is a die enlarged to over 3.5 square metres, with a small circular door allowing the viewer to climb into the dark interior lit with UV light. The elements within fluoresce in black light: molten cotton skin, penises and silhouettes of body parts litter the floor beneath giant artificial flower stems and a lurid green sign reads ‘for nostalgic purpose’.
Kudo’s dome works appear as futuristic terrariums: perspex spheres fed by circuit boards or batteries house artificial plant life, soil, and radioactive detritus. His use of acrid greens and yellows suggest a highly polluted environment. What is being cultivated in these mini eco-systems is a grotesque fusion of the biological and mechanical. That it is decomposing is illustrative of Kudo’s feeling that with the pollution of nature comes the decomposition of humanity.
Whilst Kudo’s presence in North America and Europe was marginal for many years, his influence on subsequent generations of artists has been profound and far-reaching. The simultaneously political, yet highly aesthetic, characteristic of his sculptural work is at the centre of the contemporary oeuvre. Allan Kaprow included photographs of Kudo’s performances in his 1965 compendium ‘Assemblages, Environments & Happenings’, images that would go on to inform Mike Kelley’s practice. Paul McCarthy also cited Kudo as a significant influence in his autobiography ‘Low Life Slow Life’ (2010).
About the Artist
Tetsumi Kudo was born in 1935 in Osaka, Japan, and spent a large portion of his youth in the town of Okayama, neighbour of Hiroshima. He graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts in 1958. In 1957, he began exhibiting his work at the Salon of Independents, Yomiuri and had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Blanche, Tokyo. He was awarded the Grand Prize and a travel grant to Paris through his participation in the 1962 Second International Young Artists Exhibition in Tokyo. He subsequently spent 25 years in Paris from 1962 to 1987 before returning to Japan. He died in Tokyo in 1990.
Image: Anj Smith, Uncurtaining the Night, 2014, Oil on linen, 18.5 x 24.3 cm
Amelia Redgrift, email@example.com
Opening: Monday 21 September 6-8 pm
Hauser & Wirth
23 Savile Row, London
Tue - Sat 10am to 6pm