Picture a profusion of colorful detritus caking frames, boxes and hand-built wooden structures. Imagine, then, that all this detritus manifests the play of littered streets, sexual encounters in Hawaii, the belch and screech of electric guitars, the buzz of insects. Introduce into the scene a sequence of quieter things—abstract works on paper made with gouache and plaster and resembling corroding metal; quasi-architectural wall panels made with paraffin and trussed with cellophane tape; a rectangular black wall piece that smells of a rustic cottage mixed with the reek of a painters’ studio. Shinro Ohtake’s recent 30-year retrospective at Parasol Unit encompassed all this.
Ohtake (b. 1955) was the first of Japan’s neo-Pop artists on the international art scene in the early 1980s. Many argue he might even be the most important. Eschewing fabricators, he has produced over 5,000 artworks, including mechanical soundstages, installations and paintings. Many of these are the size of small bedrooms or walk-in closets. This is over and above an output of 15,000 sketches and scrapbook pages. This focused survey, comprising 42 works, included videos of site-specific commissions but omitted the sketches that represent the artist’s incredible pace and economy of execution. Yet it offered instances highlighting the cryptic and painstaking aspects of his method.
Gathering, gestating, cutting and pasting are key activities in Ohtake’s practice of sculpture, architectural installation and three-dimensional collage. He layers thousands of images and bits of text as well as audio scraps gleaned from his experience of Tokyo’s underground music scene. He has even incorporated sections of fishing boats into his assemblages.
Density, in process and result, is essential to Ohtake’s series of 66 “Scrapbooks,” which he has been making for 30 years. Pages glued with raw material—ticket stubs, photos, newspaper clippings—are torn, painted and glued together, then torn, painted and glued again, and finally varnished. This recursive approach obscures the customary purpose of a scrapbook, to record and memorialize one’s life. Scrapbook #66 (2010-12), the only example on display, consists of 830 pages and is set upright like a sculpture. Indeed, at 60 pounds, the piece is a mini-monolith. The animal-print material cladding its spine extends downward like a flamboyant tailcoat. Any semblance of readability and narrative is nominal.
Likewise, two oil-on-canvas paintings from Ohtake’s series “Retina” (1989-91) also preclude complete interpretation. Both Retina (Left Eye) and Retina (Right Eye) are over 10 feet tall. The cascades of strokes, sprays and interrupted drips, the rubbed and burnished patches of paint, all suggest a work surface rather than a deliberate artwork. A crusted vertebrae of collaged photographs and printed matter splits each plane down the middle. Neither text nor photographs provide any discernible narrative.
The most moving work was among the artist’s earliest. It also encapsulates Ohtake’s refusal of the conceptual bent of contemporary art. Queer (1985) is a small, almost juvenile collage a little larger than a sheet of paper, filled with earth tones and natural textures. Painted swatches and drawings can be glimpsed through the forest-floor effect of dried leaves dominating the work. The methodical array of certain items, almost in the manner of a catalogue, combined with the colorist’s eye for balance and liveliness, suggests a story without connecting the dots. Ohtake is an artist who loves to make, construct, build, handle and manipulate the materials that he has spent years collecting.