Art in America - Takeshi Kawashima at Mitchell Algus

Edward Leffingwell
01/13/2007

Some of the earliest of Takeshi Kawashima's works included in this absorbing exhibition established a grid-oriented trajectory. The show began with eight small, untitled drawings in pencil, ink and gouache dating from the mid-1950s to 1961, preceding the artist's 1963 emigrationfrom Japan to New York, where he established permanent residence. One casually limned pencil drawing is ranked loosely in the grid. Its elements appear to draw on the traditional Japanese badges known as mon, signs of family, clan or guild, referential designs placed within a roundel. These symbols also suggest the graphic signs intended to orient travelers or, for that matter, the vocabulary of "international" signs developed by Matt Mullican.

The bold grid that figures an acrylic-on-linen painting from Kawashima's "Red and Black" series of the later 1960s counts four squares up and four across and 68 inches on a side. Often representational, the elements that fill the squares are sometimes bilaterally symmetrical pictographs in gradations of red on a black ground. Each block is separated from its adjacent counterparts by a line of the dominant red, which develops an interplay of positive and negative forms. Among the more identifiable images are birds in profile, a doubled-over figure (conceivably male) viewed from the rear, an image resembling an apple tilted to one side, an eye.

Four drawings in ink, pencil and colored pencil on paper invite further biomorphic readings. Thirty inches on a side and dating from 1969 to the 1970s, they offer a heraldic iconography both futuristic and sexually oriented, referencing primary sexual characteristics, parts of plants, an eye, and breasts. Their grid installation in the gallery emphasized the underlying quadrant structure of each drawing.

By the evidence of this survey, in the decade or so that followed the drawings, Kawashima seems to have loosened his attachment to the grid as an organizational device. Curvilinear geometries characterize a 68-by-76-inch painting in acrylic on canvas mounted on wood, Blue and White (Diptych) of 1982, which comes from a large series of related paintings. Composed of two panels that can be (and have been) presented in different juxtapositions with others of their kind, the painting suggests a semaphoric language in passages of ultramarine blue and white. The blue segments are painted with sweeps of a wide brush or sponge, and the white is more regularly applied. The evenly balanced segments can be read as positive or negative, making figure and ground interchangeable. His more recent acrylic-on-linen paintings of the "Kaleidoscope" series are alive with high jinks and colorful arabesques, the many forms clearly defined at the edges and freely painted within. The shapes tumble through airy spaces that emphasize the contrast between brightly hued figures and white ground. Kaleidoscope Diptych (2006), for example, combines kelly green, lime green and various blues with several arcs and passages of bright yellow, producing an overall sense of motion, as though the formal, associative nature of the moon had been set free. It is Kawashima at the peak of his game.