In 2007, the Israeli-born, London-based artist Ori Gersht produced a series of Blow Up photos by freezing flower arrangements in liquid nitrogen and then exploding them, capturing the split second they were morphing into space junk. What exactly does that series have to do with ikebana? (That is, the 600-year-old Japanese tradition of arranging flowers, guided by a principle of uniting humanity and nature, a pursuit of beauty via combinations of color, shape and line — from which the revelation of meaning is arrived at only with the arrangement’s completion.) The short answer is that both have flowers, but surely curator Karin Higa had something more in mind when pulling together an eclectic mix of international art by 20 venerable and up-and-coming artists (from modernist master Isamu Noguchi to art star Laura Owens), presented alongside floral displays created by local chapter members of three key schools of ikebana.
Rooted in the Buddhist tradition of placing flowers on altars, Ikenobo, the original among many schools of ikebana, is the source of the traditional, upright rikka style, and the later, more naturalistic shoka style. The Ohara school, named for its 19th-century founder, sculptor Unshin Ohara, incorporates Western flowers, utilizes broad containers to suggest landscapes, and strives for pictorial and literary qualities. Stressing individualism and experimentation over tradition, the Sogetsu school was founded in 1927 by Sofu Teshigahara, who collaborated with Noguchi in making ikebana vessels, and who believed ikebana could be practiced by anyone, anywhere, using any materials.
Such a lineage sounds not unlike Western art’s evolution from religious roots through humanism, rationalism, romanticism and on toward the avant-garde. It’s the possibility of linking both the outward appearances and the underlying impetus and implications of ikebana and modern and contemporary art that prompted Higa to organize this show.
Teams of ikebana arrangers from each school — a total of 78 arrangers — create new flower arrangements on-site every week, with three or four arrangements per school, per week. Though the placement of arrangements within the galleries remains constant, teams alternate locations, so arrangers respond to bases of varying sizes; different ikebana sensibilities assume positions in relation to the other works; and each arrangement is created in the presence of contemporary artworks of different sensibilities. Responsibility for one massive arrangement at the exhibition’s entrance shifts between the three schools monthly.
The quick take on a proposition like this is that it’s a bridge between East and West, or across time, but the territory is already too muddled, the boundaries too smudged, to know what’s being bridged. The ikebana arrangers are local but are affiliated with fully internationalized schools; the contemporary artists span the planet, including those of Japanese heritage, as well as others, such as Sharon Lockhart, who have worked extensively in Japan. Meanwhile, the arrangements, literally the freshest works in the show, lock in a sense of presentness amid which works of art from even the past few years start to feel vintage. This, oddly, despite the fact that ikebana strives toward a certain timelessness, while the artworks here flaunt their modern and contemporary ambitions.
One might wonder if curator Higa hasn’t stumbled into a quieter version of the mess that came from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art show, which juxtaposed works of “modern” art from above the Caribbean and Mediterranean with “primitive” art from below, while stripping the latter of its context and displaying it in one that privileged the former. But far from having stumbled, Higa, having looked first, has leaped into this mess and pulls us into a pleasing conflation of categories, conceits and contexts.
If anything, it’s the ikebana that sits comfortably in this exhibition, and the other works that are on unsure ground, but it’s interesting to see how and why the contemporary manage to fit in. On first glance, it seems this exhibition boils down to ikebana arrangers and a roster of artists who happen to have used flowers — from Robert Mapplethorpe with his studio-lit portrait of a tulip and Jim Welling and his dreamy photograms of apparition-like blooms to Anya Gallaccio’s strung-up Gerber daisies. And surely the show’s shoo-ins were those artists who have done work directly connected, such as Judy Fiskin, who made mug-shot-like black-and-white portraits of ikebana arrangements in her “Some Aesthetic Decisions” series, or Lockhart, who photographed an ikebana arrangement as it withered over a month’s time, or Andy Ouchi, who mimics ikebana with combinations of furniture and forms containing flora cut from sheets of acrylic plastic. But the more you look — with the ikebana arrangements serving variously as reminder, muse and example — the more you begin to understand that the criteria here were more about a shared sensibility, a valuing of the art of arrangement itself.
Consider Anna Sew Hoy, whose flowerless installation of tree trunks and rope, with painted shadows on the wall, recalls ikebana’s connection of natural form and material to architecture; or Manfred Pernice, whose Ikebana 1 comprises painted wood, rebar and assorted scrap metal. Floral it is not, but Pernice’s work reflects the old-school values of Ikenobo while enjoying the liberties of the Sogetsu school. Even Gersht’s exploding arrangement, which might seem to fly in the face of all that is ikebana, may also be understood as some kind of radicalized form — say, ikebana dada.
That’s not to suggest anything goes here, as Bas Jan Ader, the show’s jester, makes clear via a kind of comedy in bad faith that points, as jesting does, toward a truth. Ader’s video of himself clumsily trying to get a flower arrangement right — juxtaposed with a documentary film also included in the show and focusing on the three ikebana schools — reveals the difficulty and complexity of the art of arrangement itself.
In participating in this exhibition, the artists variously proclaim, confess or allow themselves to be outed as intuitive, romantic, formally inclined and given to craftsmanship and connoisseurship. And while many in contemporary art circles have downplayed the relevance of such tendencies, in this context, it is ikebana that reminds that such inclinations are not exclusive to cultural relevance or acuity.
There’s something almost cozy about the recent works on paper by Milan-based artist Alessandro Pessoli, who is enjoying his first major gallery show on the West Coast. The figures populating his images are flushed and brushed with color, sprayed over with hazes and halos, and layered in patterns that make you think of Marimekko fabrics. Formed from sheets of heavy paper, which are first painted and drawn upon, then cut into pieces and stitched together, they suggest handicrafts, crazy quilts and rag dolls; they have an ease about them, as both images and compositions, which holds the promise that they might be like a comfortable armchair, as Matisse wanted his paintings to be.
But imagine the chair turns out to be hot and sticky, probably found on the side of the road, and has loose springs that poke you where you wish they didn’t. There’s a dark side to all this fun. For all the calm and reverie of Pessoli’s reclining nudes, beachcombing nudists and heads lost in their own thoughts, it’s all a little chaffed and sunburnt, a little agitated, and the handicraft, while elegant in its own way, gets a bit too close to meatball surgery. One image calls to mind the poster for the surf flick Endless Summer, but perhaps with designer John Van Hamersveld collaborating with Francis Bacon. Others suggest David Hockney channeling Frankenstein. Meanwhile, a large, horizontal concoction of brightly hued, hand-formed ceramic components laid out on a pine table suggests both a constructed figure and a slumped modern building — a cyborg or a work of visionary architecture with a hot-rod paint job and heat stroke. You learn to settle into Pessoli’s armchair and enjoy his dark fancy.
LIVING FLOWERS: IKEBANA AND CONTEMPORARY ART | Japanese American National Museum | 369 E. First St., L.A. | (213) 625-0414 | www.janm.org | Through Sept. 7
ALESSANDRO PESSOLI: BUNKER ZINGARO | Marc Foxx Gallery | 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | (323) 857-5771 | www.marcfoxx.com | Through Aug. 2