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Saturday, Feb. 12, 2000

A new talent blooms in the Kyoto school


By MONTY Di PIETRO

Some eight years, when Chieko Oshie was a student at the Kyoto City University of Art, she went out walking on the grounds and chanced upon a wild burdock plant in bloom. It was something in the colors that caught her eye, and the plant became a favorite of the young student's fancy. When autumn came and the hues began to change, Oshie's interest was piqued. She began to draw and paint pictures of burdock. She hasn't stopped since.

Ten of her new paintings make up "Bloom," the latest exhibition from the 30-year-old Osaka artist. The botanical panels (Oshie also paints other plants, particularly rape flowers and chrysanthemums) are complemented by a half-dozen watercolors and pencil-on-paper drawings in the show, which is now on at the Nishimura Gallery on Tokyo's Ginza strip.

This is Oshie's fifth show in just over three years at the prestigious gallery, and she is a favorite there due largely to the spiritual life she finds in her flowering subjects, a vitality she communicates very well to the canvas. Her paintings are large but light, the paint is thinly applied, and in some places hardly there at all, like the wisp of a flower's fragrance on a spring afternoon. Oshie has a wonderful ability to bring the essence of her subjects out from the inside, such that her pictures look almost translucent.

Fragile though her subjects may be, their soft, muted colors amply fill the canvases in big, living forms. There is a little bit of magic here.

Oshie's style is in some ways similar to nihonga, modern Japanese-style paintings, an approach to representation that was introduced over 100 years ago and during the Meiji Era brought together many of the varied traditional painting styles that had come before. Nihonga became a Japanese-flavored counterpoint to the Western art which had just come into vogue in the country.

Where nihonga artists used and still continue to use traditional materials such as sumi ink, water-based paints and Japanese washi paper, however, Oshie's medium of choice is oils and oil pastels on canvas.

"I started out studying nihonga at university," explains the personable artist at a busy but casual opening party, "and then I became influenced by the work of David Hockney." Soon afterward, Oshie's style began to change. And then she found the burdock.

"Bloom" sees the artist working with a smaller palette than she had been using in recent years. For her last solo show at the Nishimura, in 1998, Oshie brought reds and lemon yellows and peaches and all sorts of greens to the same canvas. Now she is mostly using greens, reds and violets, and tending to work with different shades on a particular painting. The paintings look more mature, less decorative. In the subtlety of her approach, Oshie has found a way to bring restrained Japanese coloration into work that is very international in flavor.

Another welcome new element in Oshie's approach is her technique of blending subject into background by gently spreading the paint over the canvas with her hands. In the past, she was prone to foil primary points of focus with contrasting backgrounds, which made some of the pictures look a little too showy.

This evolution toward a seamless relationship between subject and background improves the presence of the artist's pictures when they are viewed individually (rather than in series in a gallery), by giving each picture more space to simply be what it is.

Oshie has come to let her subjects communicate through her. The artist's meditative technique (Oshie always works with a plant in one hand and a brush in the other) also helps makes these pictures effective.

All the work is from 1999, and some are dazzling, among them "Amai Nioi (Sweet Smell)," a two-panel work that stretches more than 3 meters across, and a pair of chrysanthemum pictures, each called "Kokoro (Heart)." Curiously, one of the "Kokoro" paintings is labeled in hiragana, the other in katakana script. Asked why, Oshie just smiles and says that it felt right that way.

Are flowers and plants all she wants to paint?

Oshie smiles again.

"Yes," she says.

"Bloom," at the Nishimura Gallery in Ginza, (03) 3567-3906, until Feb. 26


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