Chie Shimizu: Roji
April 22 through May 29, 2022
By ROBERT ZELLER, June 2022
Japanese artist Chie Shimizu's exhibition Roji at NowHere (Soho, New York) is a survey of nearly twenty years of the artist’s figurative sculpture, embellished with various motifs rooted in Zen spiritual practice, Noh performance and Butoh dance choreography. In terms of the number of pieces and timespan involved, it also functions as a retrospective of sorts. It offers the unique vantage point of a female sculptor working within the conservative and male-dominated Japanese conventions of the medium. Hers is more of a Zen Buddhist perspective than feminist, but still subversive in her unique way. Shimizu's highly ornamental aesthetic features figurative sculpture that is painted with traditional Japanese sea-shell powder, along with embellishments that are simultaneously decorative and that also carry her own personal meanings.
In rhythmic and enigmatic works like the Story Series and Untitled No.18, the artist uses visual metaphors that question the nature of the elements. Untitled No.18 is specifically about the dissolution of gravity, which Shimizu believes give us a sense of belonging, of security, in that it ties us to the earth. Removing such (the figure is floating upside down) allows us to see things differently and, on an existential level, to question the natural order of things and life itself. In other works, like "Untitled no.14," the uniform coloring of the figure with white paint, a tradition of Butoh dancers, is accompanied a lotus flower, which only blooms for 3-4 days after long gestation period in muddy water, symbolizing the transience of existence.
In her large scale newer work, such as "head no 1," the expressionless faces, traditional to Noth mask rituals, lend themselves to interpretations of Zen Buddhist meditational practice and of the subtlety involved in revealing thoughts buried deep inside, beneath conscious awareness, with only the slightest of indications.
A very skilled Butoh performer can induce a variety of perceived expressions. The dancers in that art form try to bring thoughts and feelings to the surface with movement, to confront and transform them into visual form. Unlike much of Butoh choreography that tends towards the grotesque (Ankoku Butoh means Dance of Darkness) and highly sexualized in nature, Shimizu's work exudes a Zen-like calm. The materials that form the tactile surfaces of her sculpture practice – ultracal, plaster, traditional pigments, white gold and gold leaf– lend the work tactile qualities both subtle and ostentatious.
Shimizu herself attributes much of her artistic philosophy to the influence her of great uncle who was a sculptor and had practiced Zen throughout his life. The idea that all things must pass, and that all worldly things are impermanent, are Zen ideals that permeate Shimizu's work.
Some of the figures, like Maquette No.7 depicts pilgrims who carry stones on their heads, which Shimizu says refers to the burden of life and expresses the feelings of hardship as they continue their life's journey. Others, such as "Untitled no.15", which depicts a man kneeling on a stack of musical instruments, show how we both meditate on, and are also consumed by, our dreams.
Roji means tea-garden in Japanese, and the cumulative effect of Shimizu's work is evocative of a perfect meditation, where the true nature of humanity may exist and be enjoyed. WM
Robert Zeller is the author of The Figurative Artist’s Handbook (2017 Monacelli Press) and the upcoming New Surrealism: Uncanny Composition in Contemporary Painting (2023 Monacelli Press/Phaidon International). He has previously written for The Brooklyn Rail as a guest critic. He has an MFA from the New York Academy of Art and maintains a professional painting practice in Brooklyn, NY.
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