Toshidama Gallery is contributing an important five sheet Sugoroku print by Kunichika from 1864 to a collaborative venture with contemporary London gallery, springseason, in Hackney. The exhibition, called Heroes, is a joint show of Kunichika and new work made in response to the large ukiyo-e piece by London based artists, Matthew Peers and Aimée Parrott.
Kabuki drama and therefore the woodblock prints that derive from the performances, are populated by Heroes and Villains. It is a simplistic view of the world, an escapism similar in many respects to the contemporary gaming that itself owes a great deal to the basic components of Japanese folk lore and popular theatre.
In the five sheet print, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, we see a vast crowd of famous actors in well known roles crowding up the steps of a temple; in fact I think we can safely say that it is the steps to the Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto – the red timber structures of the temple gate are crammed into the top right sheet. The actors rush towards the figure of Nippon Daemon who is the character in the black fright wig at the top of the steps holding a blue box.
Everything in the composition leads our eye up the steps to this great kabuki hero/villain. But this is more than just a celebration of a popular antihero… the hard to translate title of the print, Hana Sugata Nobori Sugoroku, means ‘the lovely flowers climbing the board game…’
The springseason show brings these three artists together around the themes of kabuki… the product of a popular… organic imagination of the Edo people. Kabuki in nineteenth century Japan (Edo), was more than a theatrical craze; the mythos of kabuki was a concoction of the people. The theatre was utterly demotic and in distinct contrast to the ‘high culture’ of the noh theatre – the entertainment of noblemen and the court – which was highly stylised and etiolated. These myths would have often started in folk history or the puppet theatre and been expanded upon by collaborations between authors, actors and impresarios, (echoes again of Tudor theatre). A fertile exchange of story telling thus evolved between the playwright, the audience and the printmakers and artists.
The large painting by Aimée Parrott above, seems to me in this context to relate to a show curated by the artist in 2019 around the theme of funghi. In the catalogue for that show, she wrote:
The rhyzomatic structure of fungus also provides a metaphor for the collection of artistic practices presented in this group show. The exhibition seeks to reconcile practices that overlap and interrelate despite spanning a period of over two hundred years. Each artist shares a preoccupation with the symbiotic connection we have with our environment, as is so aptly illustrated by the mushroom itself. Further, each recognises, idiosyncratically, the human body as a porous, precarious site and life as a transient and contingent state.
That statement surely is an apt description not only of popular culture in Edo two hundred years ago but also of the delicate and surprising interactions within the exhibition Heroes. Picking up on the demotic aspect of kabuki, the theatre was in some senses like a gigantic, interconnected fruiting body… the Japanese woodblock prints themselves, the zygotic fruit of those infinite inter-relationships.
And so it is with the surprising constructions of the third artist in the show, Matthew Peers. For Peers, the objects that he makes are the product of folding, bending, cutting, gluing pleating… combining humble materials and resolving historic dilemmas in delicate three dimensional structures. These beautiful, robust and still fragile objects have a poetic grace which in this context owe much of their beauty to a similar aesthetic in Japanese ceramics or calligraphy… the chance resolution of an aesthetic problem through poetic application.
Peers writes in a way that evokes Japanese poetry of the Edo period:
The joy of putting things together, matter touching matter,
matter touching thought,
thought touching thought, thought touching matter
a glance shimmering
an emergence an encounter
The works themselves, like the one pictured above, seem redolent of the same ‘community’ of cells, marks and colonies as the rhyzomatic shapes in Parrott’s work. Small cellular effusions support the surface and inform the patterns, and superimposed on this network are great heraldic, emblematic symbols that seem to come straight from the actor crests (mons) of the kabuki theatre.
I see the same density of pattern-made language… sign / symbol / shape, in Peers’ work as I see in the great prints of the Japanese woodblock artists… Look for example at the density of surface and the emphasis on self contained pattern in the portrait of Nakamura Shikan IV as Kato Kiyomasa, from 1873.
This stimulating show serves to do more than just put together contemporary woodblock printers and historic ukiyo-e artists, or to take Japanese artists or western artists working in the appropriated imagery of an alien culture. It does something much more important and much more creative. The curators at springseason have made connections between disparate culture and time and sought to allude to the very human, very pan-cultural themes that make unexpected and deeper suggestions at an organic level.
Community is at the root of this. The community of actor/writers… the community of kabuki fans, the community of artists now and then and the mycelia of thought that connects us as human beings across time and space. Like the actors rushing the steps of the Gokuraku-ji Temple in Kyoto, we crowd this planet and rush headlong. Heroes at springseason causes us to pause and make our own connections in a thoughtful and admiring contemplation.
Heroes, a collaboration with Toshidama Gallery is open at springseason,
Arch 5, 47 Martello Street, London
17th April – 15th May 2021.