Earthquake Paintings Shake Up Western Appropriations of Japanese Art
Massive ukiyo-e paintings challenge Japonism, the Western appropriation and fetishism of Japanese art.
Onnagata Installation View. Photograph by Ludger Paffrath. Image courtesy of the gallery and the artist.
Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock printing, is perhaps Japan’s most iconic artistic tradition. Although few artists work through the incredibly laborious medium today, you’ve likely encountered these small, vibrant, and often figurative depictions of Japanese history in a museum or online. For his latest exhibition at Berlin’s GNYP Gallery, young and rising artist Kour Pour has created eight paintings that revisit and alter the traditions of ukiyo-e—but with his own spin on the traditional artform.
Onnagata, the word for Japanese male kabuki theater actors who enact female roles, is the exhibition’s title and a reference to the cultural distortions enacted in this exhibition. Rather than small, figurative paintings, Pour has created enormous, seemingly abstract works that are more reminiscent of abstract expressionism than traditional ukiyo-e. Despite their appearance, the works aren’t pure abstraction; they are each derived from earthquake and volcano maps obtained by the artist from the Japanese Geological Survey.
Pour, who is of Iranian descent and perhaps best known for his paneled recreations of carpets and rugs inspired by the Silk Road, bears an intense fascination with the interweaving of different cultures: “Part of my interest is looking at cross-cultural connections and displacement," Pour explains to The Creators Project. "I think in reality I may identify even more so with these new paintings that have an appearance of one thing, but have content based in another tradition or culture. They exist in an in-between space. I’m interested in the relationships between appearance and identity.”
The references to abstract art in Onnagata are an intentional commentary on Western paintings’ appropriation of Japanese artistic tendencies over the years, a phenomenon known as Japonism: “I got to Japanese ukiyo-e prints by looking at the history of Western abstraction, which led me to its beginning in Impressionism," says Pour. "So a lot of what we think as ‘European’ Impressionism has strong roots in Japanese picture making. Likewise, ukiyo-e prints also ended up heavily influenced by European exchange."
The ultimate result of Pour’s cultural intermixing are works that defy categorization, but bring to light the incessant fusion of often unrecognized influences that have characterized Western art history for centuries. “The visual appearance mixed with the process, content and history of the work creates a painting that is in-between being one thing or another,” Pour elaborates. “Its ‘identity’ is harder to characterize. Is it painting or a print? Is it Eastern or Western? It is abstract or figurative? It’s a liminal space that I’m existing in.”