Mayuko Okada creates works from antique kimonos, weaving patterned narratives that are reminiscent of ukiyo-e scenographies.
Okada’s great-grandmother was a master of Japanese tailoring and her grandmother an enthusiast collector of prismatic kimonos. Mayuko’s works are deeply unique for their defiance of medium-specificity, spurning textual narratives and dimensional sculptures alike. The orbular moon looms large throughout, sometimes crowning silvery-cream hills that careen and lurch; occasionally, these hills peak into blue-gray, patches of weavery making themselves known. This is when Mayuko reveals her materials and, simultaneously, it is here that we move away from the putative two-dimensionality of painting, drawing, and the canvas-arts to the domain of sculpture and installation.
But this is not where we stay, as the textile—with its utilitarian origins—is an entirely different medium that also plays an important role in Mayuko’s work. It does not disrobe itself of its history, instead culling its traditions by exposing itself via ornate wagara. Mayuko hence performs a tripartite act, a rapprochement between three different aesthetic modes. She also sublates traditional categories, making that which is wearable and thus purposive—the kimono, with its rich history (one interwoven with the history of the ukiyo-e courtesan), baptized a-new.
The rolling hills are one of Mayuko’s figurative pieces, as is a piece featuring a swirling group of circling koi fish, a number of which are flattened and one which illuminates in a gold coat. From this unspools a series of truly wonderous semi-abstract works. A personal favorite involves different kimono cloths woven and tied in blood-crimson ribbons evocative of blood.
There is something peacefully violent here—but mutedly so. The string binds like a tourniquet and the kimonos remind us of both stacked cloths and globular fish drying at the open-air market. Fish are a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition, sometimes freely floating, sometimes squelched like carved armatures. Their organicity is counterposed with the dead media of textiles, the latter only brought to life when worm. This all suggests the kind of movement that Marjorie Strider’s breakage from two-dimensionality so often evoked in her infamous “build-outs” and foam installations.
Mayuko certainly flouts the fruits of plurality, fittingly deracinated from Modernist medium-specificity conceits. According to Greenberg and those who followed his Modernist idiom like Michael Fried, the great path of Modernism involves artists examining the nature of their choice art form. For, as so brilliantly recounted by Arthur Danto and, in his analyses of Danto, Noel Carroll, before Modernism was the examination of verisimilitude that Renaissance artists and the Greeks before them had implored. But with the advent of photography and, shortly after, cinema, representational realism had been achieved—and not by painting.
This great march towards verisimilitude had, nevertheless, offered pre-Modern artists something to aim towards and critics could judge these artists’ pursuits by way of their results, evaluating how close the paintings were to representations of reality. Successor frameworks like expressivism and formalism did not allow for such targets. It was only with Modernism’s imploration of medium-specificity, induced by Manet’s pre-impressionist flattening technique—which was taken to greater heights by Cubism and then brought to its logical conclusion by Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Hard-Edge Painting, and Field Painting—that we again saw artists seeking out a pursuit that could be evaluated by way of its results. This pursuit was the examination of that which was inherent to the medium.
Following Greenberg, as far as painting was concerned, what was really being uncovered was that which was unique to the canvas as such—its two-dimensionality and its edges. With Morris Louis’ dipped canvases, we saw the apotheosis of this tribunal. In other art forms, like sculpture, artists like Lynda Benglis similarly pursued that which was inherent to sculpture, and filmmakers of the Structuralist movement examined that which was putatively inherent to the moving image.
Then, contra the shibboleth of Modernism, Andy Warhol’s 1964 Brillo Boxes opened up the post-historical aperture. Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, presaged by Duchamp’s Dadaist readymades, revealed that something perceptually indiscernible from its real-world counterpart could be a work of art. But why? Because it was about something, claimed Danto—yet how these works embodied what they were about was not something we could answer just by appealing to its perceptual qualities. Rather, we had to onboard ideas and theories to explain what makes the Brillo Boxes an artwork and not those found in the supermarket. Philosophy took over that which perception qua art had exclusively been apportioned, delimiting what artwork qua artist could achieve. This was, to quote Danto, “the death of art.” In his dual act, Warhol opened up the post-historical period of art that continues on to this day. Artists were freed from Modernist examinations of their choice media and freed to pursue pluralist exercises: artists could deliver poetic, political, or sensuous works.
But artists could also, as Mayuko demonstrates, also dovetail different artforms and media. And it is this invention—these kinds of sublation-acts—that Mayuko’s art shows us in full force. She takes that which we would have traditionally regarded as purposive, the textile used (viz., purposed) for making garb that would be decorously worn, and turns into something purposively purposiveless: fine art. She also, culling Strider’s spirit, breaks free of flatness as such while still engaging it (with her occasional flattened fishes). Mayuko shows the fungibility of traditional medium-categories.
That is, Mayuko’s works are about the kimono-as-historical-art-object and her works embody their meaning by engaging transmedial ends—ones that are at once three- and two-dimensional, figurative and simultaneously abstract.
(Text by Ekin Erkan)