You probably think of Yayoi Kusama as the Japanese artist who paints spots. And you’re right, she does, and very successfully too. In her new exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery on the Clerkenwell/Shoreditch border there are plenty of spots, on large colourful canvases and quirky ‘sculptures’. The overall effect is joyous.
Kusama has been very much in the public eye recently. There was her major retrospective at the Tate Modern last spring; massively popular and rightly so, running from her early watercolours from the 1950‘s through her large white ‘infinity’ paintings and brightly decorated suites of furniture to her spectacular rooms filled with dazzling lights.
Then last autumn came her collaboration with Louis Vuitton that put a giant statue of her over the entrance to Selfridges and writhing tentacles (with spots) on Bond Street. (If you’re interested, see my posts on the Selfridges pop up and Bond St tentacles).
As a child Kusama had disturbing hallucinations, the source of her obsession with spots and the start of lifelong mental health problems, but studied traditional Japanese painting in Kyoto before moving to New York in 1957 and becoming part of the avant-garde art scene. She exhibited alongside Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg and experimented with her first room-sized installations before turning to performance art, painting spots on naked models to protest against the Vietnam War.
She went back to Japan in 1973 and tried to make a living as an art dealer without success. In 1977 she had herself committed to a mental hospital, where she has lived ever since.
The Tate Modern calls her ‘Japan’s most prominent contemporary artist’ and I’m not going to disagree with that.
The works on display at Victoria Miro are recent ones, reflecting her search for the infinite and sublime through pattern and repetition. The sculptures are new, the latest in Kusama’s Accumulations series, and I felt they were the most attractive works in the exhibition. They are fairly small scale, the smallest reaching knee height and the tallest chest-high, softly padded, colourful and witty.
I think it’s the humour and joie-de-vivre of Kusama’ work that make her such a popular artist – apparently with the highest turnover of any living woman artist. The prices weren’t shown against the works on display and we didn’t have the courage to ask, but an acrylic on fibreglass reinforced plastic pumpkin sold for $264,000 at Sotheby’s in 2007 so you get the general idea.
The exhibition is free and continues until 25 May. The gallery is open Tuesday – Saturday 10.00am – 6.00pm.
If you’re going, I warn you it’s not easy to find. It’s on Wharf Road, off City Road – in the end Yannick had to talk me in on the phone. But it’s not that far from the Shepherdess Cafe on Shepherdess Walk, if you feel the need for a cup of tea afterwards. Which you well might if you do as we did and walk up the stairs to the third floor instead of taking the lift.
Don’t miss the courtyard garden – it has an installation by Kusama in the form of giant floating silver balls.