The half-light of memory, an insubstantial reality, the in-between – these are the evocations of Leiko Ikemura's paintings, drawings and sculpture. Her figures exist in a whirl of colors that have the soft rush of breezes, changes of seasons, airy incantations of nature hovering between universes felt and observed.
A new exhibition of her works at Galerie Karsten Greve in Paris shows hybrid creatures – who seem a fusion of waiflike female spirits and a Hello Kitty type of animal – that would seem to be whimsical were it not for the very palpable sadness you sense at the impossibility ever to live in any world, in any time, without being pulled by desire, memory, longing and the reality of a hard, consuming existence.
Ikemura herself, who settled (and teaches) in Germany after having left Japan decades ago to study and work in Europe, has lived a life of in-betweens, a Japanese in Europe, learning the languages of strange countries she would later call home. You feel her trying to grasp the elusiveness of life here in these works, the loss, perhaps, of a collective identity and the difficulty of maintaining an individual one.
You can just make out faces – they have the suggestions of features, a Japanese stylization, a Brancusi-like distillation of form.
(Image: Leiko Ikemura, Blue Horizons, 2007, Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Karsten Greve, Paris)
Consider Blue Horizons, which depicts (though depict is perhaps too strong a word for what Ikemura does; it's more like the suggestion of form, of presence) three figures, with glowing yellow hair, in a wash of blue. A seaside, a beach. They look at nothing. Behind one of the figures is a larger one, either a spirit or an animating memory. What we have are the echoes of seeing or remembering, a visualization of an emotion, of a state of isolation.
VomHimmel, another painting, shows the sleeping or resting or dreaming head of a girl, her hair falling toward a yellow horizon – think Mark Rothko color band – a reverie. Similarly, Red Sphinx gives us the ochre shadow of a crawling, or kneeling, girl, a sphinx by profile (and merest hint) and a study in somber wistful wretchedness. But not hopelessness: Ikemura examines states of consciousness but seems to pull back from annihilation. Her figures are groping toward change, or evolving out of some morass, emotional, memorial, actual.
(Image: Leiko Ikemura, VomHimmel, 2008, Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Karsten Greve, Paris)
Still, there's something a little Marc Chagall about some of her work – the tilted heads, the ethereal floating figures – but far less fanciful and more uncertain. These dreams aren't dreams of escape or of exhilaration. They're half-hidden recollections of something untoward.
In her sculptures, Ikemura continues her exploration of hybridism. The figures of a reclining girl, sometimes her head to the floor, sometimes just above it, have a meditative power. From the back, they're like folded lotus flowers, or zucchini blossoms; from the other side, they're this chrysalis-like waif, wretched and yet contained, as if to break free of a half-life were too much to bear. Misery as a state of perpetual motionlessness.
-- Robert J. Hughes, a writer living in Paris