Seeing Inside Yayoi Kusama At Victoria Miro

Yayoi Kusama: New Paintings @ Victoria Miro – REVIEW

To coincide with the major retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s work currently showing at Tate Modern, Victoria Miro – the gallery that represents Kusama in the UK – has put on a small exhibition of some of her most recent work. While there are three sculptures on display, this show is really about her painting, exhibiting twenty-three canvas works from the last three years – and part of a series initially intended by Kusama to comprise one hundred paintings, but now bloated far in excess of that number.

The paintings work en masse as variations on a set of themes, with each work different from, but connected to its fellows by endlessly repeated graphic forms. ‘Biomorphic’ blob shapes, circles, wobbly black lines, trademark dots, and jagged border patterns, all jostle together, more or less densely combined. Among these patterns also appear recognisably figurative, perhaps symbolic, objects such as eyes, faces in profile or eyelashes. The abstract and the figurative merge with and emerge from each other; so the curve of a face in profile becomes the curve of a closed eyelid, which in turn becomes a spiky caterpillar-like form that squirms across the surface of the canvas.

Looking at these works can become rather overwhelming. One thinks of squirming organisms under a microscope, of the destructive exponential reproduction of bacteria – the waves of organic growth punctured by occasional patches of population collapse. Maybe this is why Kusama often paints those heavy, barbed borders, in an attempt to hold the multiplication in check, to keep the flood of obsession at bay.

On another level, the paintings are an object lesson in visual perception effects – neurobiologists and opthalmologists would have a field day. Kusama uses equiluminant colours of sickening intensity to create vibrating edges and shimmering regions of pattern (a favourite attention grabbing trick of the advertising industry). Fields of gold and silver paint reflect differently as you move in front of the canvas, altering the luminosity ratios between background and foreground to create moments of spatial blurring, flattening, or depth. Coal black slicks of paint are brought up against vivid colours to create glowing ‘brightness contrast’ effects. Sperm-like squiggles floating in equiluminant blobs of colour, in turn floating in fields of opposing hue, create the illusion of motion, exacerbated by the way in which the eye is forced to dart distractedly across the canvas by the multitude of insistent little black dots.

The artist (one suspects intuitively) is manipulating quite high level optical effects of focal point tracking, depth perception and two dimensional spatial resolution. This only serves to powerfully reinforce the pulsating, living and hallucinogenic quality of the work. For sheer overwhelming obsession it’s hard to beat Kusama, and if you are one of her fans wanting a glimpse into her mental world at age eighty-two – of which these paintings are undoubtedly a reflection – this show is definitely worth a visit. Words Laurence Lumley © 2012 ArtLyst


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