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Asako Tabata Paints a World Between Reality and Imagination


Before I knew much about Asako Tabata, two works got my attention. The first was “Door” (2020), an oil painting of an ambiguous, seemingly helpless figure sitting up in an oversized single bed in a red room with a skewed perspective. Together, the stretched perspective, internal scale relationships, and use of a color I know as “Chinese red” pulled me into a fraught world. Later, I learned that the artist had provided a note about the source of the scene: “My mother. Her legs are too weak and she can’t leave the room.” 

The second work that grabbed my attention was “Jump Rope” (2020), a gray two-panel painting of girls playing jump rope, hung in one corner of the gallery around a foot or two above the floor, with a slightly crouched, dark gray and white papier-mâché figure of a girl (or an older woman) facing it. Tabata provided this note:

Painting: It looks fun, but once you jump you may not be able to come back.

Sculpture: She is worried.

Asako Tabata, “Fit the Mold” (2019), oil on wood, 8.7 x 12.6 x 0.8 inches

I saw these and other works in Asako Tabata: Cutting a Loquat Tree at SEIZAN Gallery (January 6–February 26, 2022), the artist’s debut exhibition in the United States. From the gallery press release I learned that, “Despite the otherworldly imagery, Tabata states that her subjects are based on everyday, mundane experiences.” The press release also explained that: 

Tabata was born in 1972 in Kanagawa, Japan. After graduating Tama Art University and soon after becoming a mother and a homemaker, she continued to make art. Not active on social media, Tabata has kept her works private besides occasionally showing in limited galleries in Tokyo.

Although Tabata never announces this, the choices she has made are radical. She has rejected careerism and a life path as a professional artist, choosing instead to get married and raise a family, while continuing to make art. Her decisions are all the more subversive since the culture she is living in is decidedly patriarchal. 

What also struck me about her work — inseparable from her life, it seems to me — are the different sizes and supports she incorporates into her process. On the wall opposite “Door” were many small works on canvas and irregularly shaped pieces of wood. The subject running through all of the works is the meeting place of one’s inner and outer life, of psychic states and outward responsibility, and the different frictions that can arise in that gap. Tabata looks clearly and directly into the chasm between the wandering, daydreaming mind and the fulfilling of one’s social obligations, between one’s disposition toward anarchic wildness and the recognition of accountability. 

Installation view of Asako Tabata: Cutting a Loquat Tree at SEIZAN Gallery

Examining that tension and all the contradictory and often unsavory feelings that swirl through us, Tabata pushes her work into a more engaging place than, for instance, the older, pioneering artist Yoshitomo Nara, whose depictions of children in different emotional states have become well known. Whereas Nara places the figure against an abstract ground, essentially isolating it, Tabata locates her figures in a world that exists somewhere between reality and imagination. Another difference is that Tabata drifts between the roles of mother with child and daughter, states that implicitly recognize time’s ultimately devastating effect on us. Will Tabata one day become like her mother, unable to get out of bed and dependent on her children? 

While Nara’s girls don’t grow old, aging is one of Tabata’s underlying themes. That sense of feeling trapped by one’s choices, the resentment that can build up, linger, and threaten to overwhelm, is alluded to in small paintings, such as “Fit the Mold” (2019) and “Run Away” (2020). By working on an intimate scale (both paintings are less than 13 inches tall and wide), and a seemingly offhand manner, she conveys the possible time constraints that she is working under, again without ever announcing it. Her artworks don’t feel rehearsed beforehand. She is working everything out on her surface, however large or small. 

Asako Tabata, “Jump Rope” (2020), oil on canvas, acrylic on paper mâché. Painting: 23.9 x 52.5 x 0.8 inches. Sculpture: 23.6 x 8.3 x 7.9 inches

In “Jump Rope,” I was intrigued by Tabata’s use of different grays to depict the landscape, figures, and jump rope. She adds to the intrigue by making the papier-mâché figure appear both adult and pre-adolescent. In “Door” it is hard to tell if the figure is an adult or an infant. By placing the viewer at one end of the bed, we occupy the same position as the person taking care of her, presumably the artist. Can we be empathetic? After studying “Jump Rope,” the figure suddenly seemed too old to be playing this children’s game. Because Tabata’s note about the painting and sculpture are about art and being an artist, the artworks stir up all kinds of feelings. Jumping rope never looked so uninviting and emotionally unsettling. All of that is conveyed by the tense pose of her papier-mâché figure. 

The fact that Tabata hung the painting “Jump Rope” in a corner and so low to the ground, and works on surfaces that fit in the size of your palm expresses the radical nature of her undertaking, which is suffused with tenderness, grief, apprehension, solitude, desire, and anger. Her rejection of the big, slick, and arty — which have become dominant in recent years — is welcome. She is uninterested in filling the large walls of sophisticated collectors. All too happy to please this group, numerous artists try to make art that looks authentic and in touch with one’s inchoate feelings. Tabata doesn’t have to try. 

Asako Tabata: Cutting a Loquat Tree continues at SEIZAN Gallery (521 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 26.

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