At first sight, Yumi Katayama’s art has a jumpiness to it. If you see live paintings by her, each one seems to have a different mood or focus. It’s easy to think that five different artists have been involved in their production. But no. It’s all Yumi Katayama, orchestrating her delicate and multi-faceted pictorial dramas like a composer writing for different instruments in the orchestra.
The jumpiness is never the result of indecision or flightiness. Rather, it is proof of a different kind of consistency. Not the Cézanne kind, where an artist keeps ascending along the same pictorial line.
That’s been done and it’s not for her. Her method involves beginning the journey from a mix of different starting points – then hanging on for dear life while the bucking bronco of art gallops o on its new circuit.
Over here, she’s floaty and ethereal, conjuring up abstracted fogs that seem to owe everything to the landscape (Bernard’s Painting; Yesterday’s Red; If There Were Stars). Over there, she’s hard-edged and dark, quoting shapes and moods that could have been discovered on the cover of a science-fiction paperback (Fear; Pigeon Blood; Narcissus). Then, abruptly, the angst drains away, and we’re in a world of warm, suggestive geometry where post-constructivist shapes grow uncharacteristically emotional (Absence; Green Emperor; Tanzanite). One show. Many moods. That’s how it is with Yumi Katayama.
Sudden Power, for instance, is an ecstatic response to something she saw on the train from London to Derby. Looming up in a window was the sudden sight of a sprawling power station glowing with eerie whiteness against a grey and rainy sky. She took a photo. It was snatched and shaky. But it was enough to start a journey.
Because she was born in Japan in 1955, issues of translation also loom up. Her adventurous sense of colour was delivered to her in the wasabi and the natto. It’s a palette that is strikingly non-western: a taste for combinations sourced from a different rainbow. Her taste in shapes and balances is equally off-centre.
In successive pictures she can veer from hard shapes that dominate the centre to free-form expanses that float like clouds. The results have previously been described as ‘Japanese surrealism’. Sometimes, she does, indeed, appear to be whispering in the pictorial language of the 1930s. A Tanguy-like inflection. A hint of Masson. But nothing she produces started out in dreamland or in the deepest recesses of the psyche.
Her starting point is always the world before us.
That said, it does get viewed from unusual angles. Angles that make no sense. Until they are reconstructed.
I am going to write about science to begin with because Yumi Katayama’s work appears, in some interesting senses, absolutely up-to-date in its scientific beliefs, and because science is increasing in importance as a guide to art. This is not an entirely new role for science. Cézanne said he was looking for the cones, spheres and cubes from which nature was built, and if you think about it, this is a very queer ambition for an artist to have. It sounds like a scientist’s ambition. Searching for cones and squares in nature is something a geologist might do, or a physicist.
Since then, there have been many attempts in modern art to find some underlying conceptual order to the surface chaos of the world. The cubists were looking for the optical totality of everything they saw. Mondrian went further, and reduced the appearance of things to its simplest geometry. All these artists brought an air of scientific inquiry to their work.
In her latest work, Katayama has been very specific about the sites at which she discovered her moments of optical interest. She has entitled and listed them with the sort of precision that a botanist might display when arranging his specimens. In a sense these are what her paintings are: specimens of reality. Each one represents, a different moment of optical interest which she has saved from extinction.
Her starting point is usually something she has glimpsed, or passed. These are not moments of high optical drama, or flamboyant details, but quiet moments: the shape of a cornice, the interface between a wall and its surrounding, the way the light falls on the corners of a room, the relationship between a tower and the sky, an architrave’s shadow, a window’s recess. Once identified, such a moment is sieved for the pictorial laws it exemplifies, and calmly preserved. The painter takes over from the theoretician.
But the quietude of the chosen moment is clung onto very fiercely. In this exhibition Yumi Katayama is ensuring the survival of the unfittest.
The question is: what has she discovered? The quick answer, of course, is: beauty. A long answer would take us stumbling across a dense philosophical terrain littered with assumptions about the poetry of stasis and other complications. But who wants to go there? Not me. Not Yumi.
It is not abstraction. Any more than the pictures of Yumi Katayama are abstractions.
‘No man ever steps in the same river twice.’ – Heraclitus
There is no right or wrong way to be an artist. No one has ever written a rule book saying: this is how you have to do it. Every artist must create their own path, with their own rules, their own direction.
In most cases, following this path involves the enactment of small incremental changes, where one thing leads to another, and then another. But Yumi Katayama does not work that way. She works in clusters. Bodies of work. Suites. New things appear suddenly in her oeuvre with an impact that can feel explosive. First she does it this way. Then she does it that way. Every Yumi Katayama show appears to be following a new set of rules.
But this fizzy sense of change – the sense of difference – is actually an illusion. Underlying all the seemingly dramatic leaps and dog-legs is a consistent respect for the pleasures of looking. All her art has, as its fundamental urge – its guiding principle – a need to notice optical coincidences and constellations found and enjoyed in the world around us. Things she has spotted. Sights she has witnessed. They can be minute: the impact of an edge; the rhythm of a surface; the way one object lies next to another. Most of us walk past these tiny everyday details, and do not see them. Katayama picks them out. She treasures them and enlarges them. In her art, tiny patterns and modest rhythms become something bigger, something prouder. The micro becomes the macro; the chorus takes centre stage. We are witnessing a series of beautiful pictorial ennoblements.
The present collection is her most flamboyant to date. There’s an overall sense here of baroque lusciousness: of many shapes and textures competing for our attention. Where previously her art has appeared minimal and even austere, here it seems particularly ornate and plush. Rolex even has a plush name; somewhere within this gorgeous busyness you can, perhaps, imagine that you sense an atmosphere of expense. However, Concrete does not have a plush name; prompted by the curt and hard title we are encouraged to recognise a greyer and less glamorous expanse, with less frilly origins.
Of course, we are not actually looking in any of those directions. There is no up or down here, no big or small, no landscape or still life, no field, no bouquet. This is not an art that has ever been tasked with exploring the sights themselves. Instead, it creates anew from the same patterns: the same interstitials. In Katayama’s busy, encoded collages, planets and atoms swap each other’s rhythms and borrow each other’s scales. The tiny pretends to be huge. The see-through dresses up as the solid. Art toys with visibility’s rules.
There is something else to note: a hardcore modern understanding. This is also art that addresses us on the value of appearance. In Yumi Katayama’s gorgeous painterly democracy the real and the ersatz share the same patterns and deliver the same pleasures. Her ornate collection of coincidences and constellations is prompting us to look more thoughtfully at what is real and what is reproduced. Because it wants us to conclude that the differences don’t matter.
Because so much of her life has been spent away from Tokyo, it might be assumed that Yumi Katayama has lost touch with most of her Japaneseness: that the foreign influences crowding in on her imagination would have overwhelmed what was originally there. But that is not how nationality works. It is not a coat of paint that can easily be changed: a look or a style. Nationality is a set of inviolate interior laws that will always act on you, wherever you are. It’s a pathway through the senses that cannot be removed. Just as when you fly over a field of corn you can still discern the shadows of the prehistoric village that was originally there, so Japaneseness will always be buried within Yumi Katayama.
However, by ‘Japaneseness’ I do not mean anything twee or obvious. We are not talking here about geishas or cherry blossom or kimonos. Nothing survives of the touristic Japan in Katayama’s art. Her Japaneseness can be discerned on a deeper level. In a preference for certain types of colour. A different relationship to symmetry. A taste for shapes that strike me, a gaijin, or foreigner, as unusual and unexpected. There is an elegance here, definitely, but it is not a predictable elegance. Above all, her art has an un-fixed quality to it, a fluidity, a restlessness, a sense of shifting focus, which, paradoxically, is perhaps the most Japanese thing about it.
Every room in this display will feel a little different from the one before. As you wander around the show, you may find yourself wondering if Yumi Katayama is one artist or ten. One moment she is working with enamels on aluminium. The next moment she is painting soft geometries on canvas or making woodblock prints or even taking photographs. Over here, she seems fully abstract. Over there, she appears mildly figurative. Some of her art feels spectacularly empty, as if there is barely anything there: a shape, a colour. The next picture, however, may look packed. Overflowing. Squirming with energy.
This ancient awareness of impermanence is one of the inviolate inner laws of the Tokyo identity. The Japanese even have a special word to describe this state of constant change that has shaped their world view. They call it the ukiyo, which translates as: ‘the floating world’. In the 19th century, the celebrated Japanese woodblock prints which had such a powerful influence on the Impressionists were actually known as ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of the floating world’. And that is what you will encounter at this show. Constant change. Fluid visions. Moments. Fragments. Shadows. Glimpses. Encapsulations. A creativity without borders.
There is something else. At one point in this odyssey you will encounter some of the unexpected jewellery that Yumi Katayama makes out of pure gold, by hand, in the traditional fashion. She calls it Yumi’s Gold. Another way to understand her, is to think of her, perhaps, as a gem-collector. Someone who goes to all these places and sifts through all the sights that confront her, looking for sudden fragments of preciousness that are worth saving. Magic moments. Surprising harmonies. Tiny glimpses. These visual gems are all around us in the ukiyo. They are everywhere in our world. But you have to know how to look for them. And you have to be flexible.