Hidenori Ishii captures Fukushima disaster in acrylic paintings

Iceplants by Hidenori Ishii

Through May 18 at C. Grimaldis Gallery


Hidenori Ishii moved to the United States from Japan to study environmental science at George Mason University in 1997. He thought his English skills would be sufficient but found himself unable to communicate with anyone. Feeling isolated, he began to spend his time in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and became obsessed with Dutch painting, especially Johannes Vermeer, whose paintings are so full of silence. He would stand in front of "Woman Holding a Balance" and see his own situation mirrored in Vermeer's image: "For me, I was at a point where I wasn't sure where I was going, and the gesture and the look in her face when she's holding the balance got this questionable state."

Ishii ultimately found art more compelling than environmental science and changed his major to painting (his first painting in an art class was a copy of a Vermeer). When he graduated, he moved to Baltimore to attend MICA for graduate school, where he was still doing figurative work based on the old masters. There, when he listened to a talk by the critic Dominique Nahas, who had written a catalog for a show of contemporary Japanese art, Ishii began to understand-or at least feel drawn toward-contemporary art in a way he never had before. He soon began to work under Grace Hartigan. Despite his change in direction, Ishii held on to the lessons about light on a canvas that he had learned from Vermeer.

After he graduated from MICA in 2004, Ishii moved to New York and began to work as an artist's assistant for Takashi Murakami, one of the most famous living artists. "I hated his work," Ishii says. "But when I moved to New York, I needed a job, and with an MFA, that was the job I could get."

Nevertheless, some of the work in Ishii's 2009 show at C. Grimaldis Gallery shared a certain pop-cultural lightness with Murakami. It was in Murakami's studio, also, that Ishii became familiar with acrylic paint, which is now his primary medium.

Just as Ishii brought his use of acrylics from his time with Murakami (whom he doesn't hate so badly anymore), his current day job as a screenprinter for Victoria's Secret Pink has also influenced his most recent work, which comes full circle, returning to his initial interest in environmental science.

IcePlants, on display through May 18 at C. Grimaldis Gallery (along with the Building the Natural by Foon Sham), is a direct response to the earthquake-related catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in 2011.

At the opening reception for the show, Ishii reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellphone. He clicked on an app that offers a live feed of the power plant's web cams, explaining that he would capture screens from this feed to use as a model for the massive painting. Over these images, he superimposed memories from childhood trips to Fukushima and images from a more recent visit to the area. "I got my friends to drive me," he says. "All the abandoned houses and buildings were shocking. In a documentary, there is a little girl who said she could not go outside because it was dangerous. But the flowers and trees were blooming." (Two eerie paintings, "Snow Bunny I" and "Snow Bunny II," each of which depict a girl's shoulders with a blotted-out or faded-away face, were inspired by this image.)

"It's ironic," he says, "that this plant was actually supposed to be a 'green' reactor and it is where we have this tragedy."

On this recent trip, Ishii also noticed that the ground had been sprayed with a green synthetic resin to keep the radiation from becoming airborne. He began to research the material, called Kuricoat, and managed to sneak some into the U.S., where he used it as the primer for the screenprinted backgrounds of the acrylic paintings.

At first sight, the Fukushima paintings "Remains of the Day I" and "Remains of the Day II," full of colorful, gridded images of towers and cranes, are reminiscent of Robert Delaunay's early 20th-century cubist paintings of the Eiffel Tower, and even share a visual language with Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her, where construction in Paris creates a constant cinematic backdrop to the drama. Actually, in these paintings Ishii uses the language of high modernism to create extremely postmodern paintings which are a part of a world not of construction-as Delaunay's or even in retrospect Godard's-but a world of destruction and deconstruction. And yet they manage to take this destruction and make it beautiful, not in a wistful or nostalgic way, but with a vital and powerful visual language that, though full of sentiment, is not sentimental. Ghostly blue screenprinted flowers float behind post-industrial towers and cranes.

Rather than using the muted colors of destruction-think Andrei Tarkovsky's classic "post-fallout" film Stalker-Ishii uses the same bright neon colors of his earlier pop culture-inspired work. A crane will be hot pink with bright-purple cubes, and the floating flowers a paler version of the Kuricoat-green backdrop.

Other pieces in the show were initially inspired by another trip and another catastrophe, this time, Iceland and its impending economic meltdown. There, Ishii began to paint a series of icebergs with plants and trees inside of them, floating. "Ashes in the Snow," a 2011 painting, captures a still, cool blue that is somehow both tragic and, as Ishii puts it, utopian.

It is strange to think of the utopian in the midst of nuclear meltdown and contamination, but that is precisely what Ishii has found in his floating worlds of superimposed scenes of catastrophic web feeds and living memories. "I didn't want to make these horrible images," he says. "I wanted to suggest possibilities. I hope to bring something alive out of it." And that feeling is captured not only in Ishii's new paintings but in the glance of Vermeer's "Woman Holding a Balance." ■

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