Yumura Teruhiko, GONZO'S Underground Mix Vol.7. Image courtesy of Japan House.
Located in Kensington High Street, Japan House London presents the very best of Japanese art, design, gastronomy, innovation, and technology, describing itself as the ‘cultural home of Japan in the UK’. Their new exhibition, WAVE, is no exception.
WAVE is inspired by a similar exhibition of the same name which takes place annually in Tokyo, and is even curated by the same duo – Hiro Sugiyama and Takahashi Kintarō: specialists in pop art, surrealism and illustration. Although the artwork itself is located downstairs in the gallery on the lower ground floor, the rich and dynamic spectrum of Japanese arts and culture becomes immediately evident as soon as you step inside the building. The walls are embellished with an enchanting assortment of traditional woodblock prints, modern manga illustrations, and lively poster art; no wall of the building remains untouched by artwork and culture.
As you descend the stairs and enter the subterranean-like exhibition itself, you are immediately met by perhaps one of the most striking pieces of the collection – a huge, photorealistic work by up-and-coming female artist Yukishita Mayu. Her untitled 2020 work on show is a clear balance between illustration and realism, providing a striking juxtaposition of tradition and modernity. Like much of the works on show, her portrait subtly incorporates elements of manga, such as the slightly enlarged eyes and other distinct and exaggerated features - all of which add an emotional edge that elevates the work beyond realism.
Yukishita Mayu, UNTITLED. Image courtesy of Japan House.
This fusion of genre is a common theme throughout the exhibition, which aims to merge various elements of new and old, moving beyond categories. As well as showcasing art from legendary pop artists Tanaami Keiichi and Yumura Teruhiko, WAVE introduces five budding young artists to the collection - Utsunomiya Nao, Kakuda Mayu, Katō Takaaki, Nakajima Yūta, and Yano Keiji have all had their work showcased for the first time in the UK. In this way, the exhibition transcends conventional classifications. Co-curator Takahashi Kintarō himself commented that the collection is ‘The present and the future of the creative essence of Japanese media art, unbound by genre or generation’.
Wave is subversive in more ways than just this, as it fiercely challenges perceptions of what is good and bad art through the concept of heta-uma, which quite literally translates as ‘bad-good’. It is often taken to mean ugly but beautiful: where something that appears bad at first is actually good upon closer inspection. The term was coined back in 1970s Japan by the aforementioned featuring artist Yumura Teruhiko - his piece GONZO'S Underground Mix Vol.7 is the exhibition’s largest work of art; a completely unmissable and chaotic comic book-style piece. His work clearly opposes the polished look of traditional Japanese art – work considered to be heta-uma often has a seemingly more ‘raw’ quality to it, evident through much of the art displayed at WAVE.
This is what much of WAVE challenges, by prizing all styles and artists in a joyous rejection of unjust classifications.
'WAVE: Currents in Japanese Graphic Arts' is on at Japan House until 22 October. This exhibition is free.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn