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Issue 223

Keiji Usami's Visions of Liberation

At Komaba Museum, Tokyo, a retrospective showcases the late postwar artist and theorist’s dedication to transforming polarized media representations

BY Azby Brown in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 17 AUG 21

In June 2017, a major painting by noted postwar artist, writer and theorist Keiji Usami was removed from the wall of a dining hall at the University of Tokyo and discarded. Titled Kizuna (Bonds), the large-scale work had hung in the same location since it was commissioned in 1977. Its fate was decided by committee as the hall was undergoing renovation: no-one involved in the planning considered it worth saving.  Its unfamiliarity was its death sentence.

keiji usami kizuna 1977
Keiji Usami, Kizuna, 1977, oil on canvas, 3.7 × 4.8 m. Courtesy: Komaba Museum, University of Tokyo 

As word trickled out over social media, alarm grew within cultural circles. How could such a thing happen? Highly feted in Japan throughout the 1970s, Usami had been the subject of a major retrospectives in Tokyo in 1993 and in Wakayama in 2016. But, unlike his contemporaries, the Mono-ha artists, Usami has receded from public awareness. At the urging of younger arts faculty members, a major symposium was convened at Tokyo University in 2018 to initiate a re-appraisal of Usami’s work. The current exhibition, which includes extensive archival material and an informative catalogue, is one major outcome of this process. Kizuna has been painstakingly reconstructed for the exhibition in digital form.

Like most of Usami’s mature work, Kizuna uses figures derived from a photograph, originally published in Life magazine, of Black residents involved in the 1965 Watts uprising in Los Angeles. Usami felt that the figures – running, crouching, throwing – encapsulated the ‘entanglement of the human condition' (translated from Usami Keiji: From Sign to Form,1985). Similar scenes had become all-too-familiar in Japan as well during the late 1960s, as anti-US student radicals clashed with riot police, notably at the University of Tokyo itself. Usami systematically dissected and overlaid the figures’ active poses into complex, shadow-like variations.

keiji usami kombana museum
'Keiji Usami: A Painter Resurrected', 2021, exhibition view, Komaba Museum, University of Tokyo. Courtesy: Komaba Museum, University of Tokyo 

Usami’s structured yet improvisational compositional method is apparent in a series of table-like sculptures, exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1972 and represented here in Ghost Plan in Process I–IV: Profile IV. Stacks of volumetric puzzle blocks are generated from fragmented facial profiles, their upper surfaces stencilled with labels referencing stratification and dislocation. The work invites interaction in search of resolution.

Ghost Plan No. 1 (1969), also shown in Venice in 1972, is representative of paintings in this extensive series, as was Kizuna. Figures and their fragments are dispersed across a schematic field, as if in preordained motion, connected by a path-like network of diagonal lines of varying widths and colours. Small alphabetical indices act as hints. Colour is coded and denotative, with careful gradations and the suggestion of layering. Edges are sharp and carefully masked. Although these paintings refer to violent acts, their aura is athletic. Usami has abstracted the figures from their polarized media representations – as either perpetrators or victims of mass cruelty – schematizing their bodies as a kind of fundamental spiritual transformation.

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Keiji Usami, Laser: Beam: Joint, 1968, installation view. Courtesy: Komaba Museum, University of Tokyo ​​​​​​​​

Laser: Beam: Joint (1968) shows how ahead of his time Usami was. This remarkable and influential early laser artwork helped to define the genre and has been restored for this exhibition. Five thick acrylic panels with cut-outs derived from the Watts figures are suspended and illuminated with UV lights so that they glow fluorescent green. Red and blue laser beams, made visible by clouds of mist, are reflected by mirrors affixed to the panels, connecting the figures in a luminous schematic web.

In this work and others, Usami sought transcendent imagery that could connect and re-energize the bodies of disparate individuals in a vision of liberation. But the intervening histories of social conflict and lethally exercised state power also make a forensic reading of these works inescapable. The beams in Laser: Beam: Joint penetrate and ricochet off the silhouettes as if turning the Watts figures into targets. While much subsequent laser art has emphasized activity and movement, this dense, quiet and brooding piece remains otherworldly and unsettling to contemporary eyes.

'Keiji Usami: A Painter Resurrected' is on view at the Komaba Museum, University of Tokyo, through 29 August. 

Main image: Keiji Usami, School, 2003, oil on canvas, 2.3 × 2.3 m. Courtesy: Komaba Museum, University of Tokyo ​​​​​​

Azby Brown is lead researcher at Safecast, a citizen-science organization devoted to creating environmental data. He lives in Yokohama, Japan.