In her pared-down, figurative paintings, often of a lone female, Asako Tabata presents a stark, unsettling vision of a society in which women have little chance to achieve autonomy. At first glance “A Wolf Is Coming!” (2023) seems to be the artist revisiting Aesop’s fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The painting depicts what looks like a blue-haired adolescent girl standing against a Chinese red ground, with her hands at her side and an oval, representing an open mouth, on her otherwise featureless face.
There is no sign of a wolf in the painting. And yet, the Aesop reading doesn’t strike me as quite right. What are we to make of the ominous black cloud in the painting? Does it imply that dangerous forces are present? Does the open mouth suggest that she is crying for help or is the sound stuck in her mouth, unable to exit? The woman’s pose, her arms close at her sides, indicates that she is frustrated and frozen rather than, as in the fable, crying out in false alarm.
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Tabata’s painting reminds me of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893). In all of Munch’s versions of this iconic image, the figure’s hands are pressing against the skull-like face, amplifying its anxiety. If, as Munch once wrote, the figure in his painting expresses an “infinite scream passing through nature,” Tabata’s woman symbolizes the opposite, the infinite scream that is never released by the body. By omitting all other facial features, the artist focuses the viewer’s attention on the mouth. The oval is the infinite silence of women throughout Japan’s history.
In her second US exhibition of intimately scaled oil paintings and painted papier-mâché sculptures, Asako Tabata: Waste of a Cushion at SEIZAN Gallery, the artist continues to explore enigmatic situations that seem to emerge from incidental occurrences in her everyday life. In the show’s largest painting, the 16-by-25-inch, two-panel “Wiping Makes It Dirtier” (2023), a woman in red clothing (or is it her raw skin?) wipes a tile floor with a folded, white cloth, on her hands and knees. Behind her is a trail of thinned black paint. Did the woman make the stain? Or is she moving backwards and cleaning it up? How can the cloth remain so white? In the right panel, Tabata’s previous paint applications peek through. “Wiping Makes It Dirtier” compressed the acts of painting, domestic chores, and servitude into a powerful image. As with “A Wolf Is Coming!,” we witness a woman doing something that is both ordinary and opaque. The painting’s impenetrability speaks to the split between an individual’s inner reality and outward actions, and between one’s unpredictable desires and submission to social protocols.
In the three papier-mâché sculptures on a table at the center of the gallery, Tabata captures a feeling of hopelessness through her attention to posture. “Ruler” (2023) portrays a woman on her knees, leaning forward, with her hands on her thighs as if she is supporting an immense weight. A bamboo ruler extends out of the back collar of her sweater, a constant reminder of her bent posture and a standard of perfection she will never achieve. When I asked Tabata about this, I learned that the ruler was used to remind schoolchildren throughout Japan to maintain the correct posture, and that this was a common practice for many years.
In “Captured Piece” (2023), a young woman on her knees looks at something she holds in her right hand. The figure seems forlorn, as if stricken with an unspeakable grief whose origins the viewer can never know.
Working with permeable materials on a small scale, while addressing subjects such as grief, frustration, impossible standards, and social barriers, Tabata exposes the dark side of contemporary Japanese society, which her celebrated male counterparts, such as Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami, largely ignore. Her use of papier-mâché and rejection of large-scale or even easel-sized paintings further points to the pressure to conform to marketplace demands. There is nothing slick about her work.
In the exhibition’s largest work, the installation “Why Should I Even Bother?” (2023), a sculpture of a woman faces a diptych installed where two walls abut. The sculpted woman stands on a black oval, hunched over, head facing downward, feet turned slightly inward. In the right-hand panel of the Chinese red painting is her doppelgänger, her hands behind her back. She also stands on a black oval, alone in a largely empty room whose walls go back diagonally in space. The sculpted figure’s black hair forms a tight helmet while her white face is reminiscent of oshiroi, or the white foundation the actors wear in Kabuki theater. While men and women originally acted in Kabuki, it evolved into a form in which only male actors perform.
Although the figure in the painting appears to be standing erect, the sculpture’s pose evokes defeat, depression, and resignation, though nothing suggests why. We suspect the two women are intimately related and that perhaps one mirrors the other, but the nature of their bond is not self-evident. The white face becomes a mask of stoicism, yet the figure’s posture conveys weariness over the simplest action, such as walking. In her fierce modesty, Tabata attains a depth of feeling that is rarely encountered in contemporary art.
Asako Tabata: Waste of a Cushion continues at SEIZAN Gallery (525 West 26th Street, Ground Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 21. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.