A review of Ryo Toyonaga


The Vilcek Foundation 

        Disclaimer: As a part-time reviewer of many things, but with critical knowledge of almost nothing, it is my wont to preface every review with a disclaimer:  I know nothing.  I begin nowhere and if I end up somewhere—fine.  For me, the process is all, and for that I can only beg your indulgence.   As a crutch I often eavesdrop on the conversations of people around me.  I record their reactions,1 adopt or discard their words and phrases, merge them with my own, to create a kind of running narrative of the art-viewing experience.  Much of what I feel or think may have to do with other contingencies in my life: diet, sleep deprivation, mass transit delays, and various prevailing obsessions.  That said, I don’t get a lot of work reviewing art. 

I wanted to review this show partly for the reason that it connects with those aforementioned contingencies.  Lately I have developed a renewed interest in the lingering effects of atomic bomb imagery and psychology.   This is largely due to current personal projects, some of which include an archeology of the 50s and 60s paranoia.  Also, I recently watched the opera Doctor Atomic—a couple of times, actually.  Old neural pathways were stimulated.  Perhaps I should have stopped the process but I did not.  And, well, let’s just say Ryo Toyonaga’s work had “affinities” which I appreciated.  The work took me back to a long ago bohemian past when I used to get drunk in the afternoon and watch Spectre Man reruns on TV. It was an apathetic ritual intended to kick start the creative process.  That might have been an illusion.  I was living in Chicago at the time, trying to be a poet.  I was barely employed.   I am barely employed now, and the atomic bomb reveries have returned—perhaps being neurologically connected to feelings of failure and imminent doom—what some psychiatrists call the landscape of my personal idiom.  My current shrink does not use such language.  He just writes prescriptions—and I thank him for that.  But enough about me.

This is not normally work that I would seek out, being earth-toned as it is, and suggestive of pottery-class art projects.  It does have a familiarity about it, like something seen before, in some other show somewhere in Soho or Woodstock by some other person who makes clay shapes for attention.  However, on quickly touring the room, I found my biases confused as my mind traveled from association to association, some surprising, some predetermined—wasp’s nests, wooden shoes, walnut shells, polyps, plumbing, storage pots, rat-tails, granite, construction putty, cranberries, cartoons, beetle larvae, and starfish.  It was as if I were searching for reference points in much the same way that the objects themselves seemed to be searching for something in me—reaching out via their odd appendages for something to latch onto in my memory.  In fact, the more I watched the objects, the more I felt I was being watched by them, as if each one had the uncanny ability to draw a bead on my reaction.  And yet they were indifferent for all that.  I realized then that the room was bubbling in a sense, and not just with the voices of other humans but with a subterranean jocularity issuing from the objects themselves. Toyonaga’s work is inhabited by a spirit that may be human or animal but is always animated and whimsical.  There is a certain jokey innocence evident in the poses, and I say pose here to show just how many of these objects seem to come off as characters, not the laughing characters of cartoons and advertising, as sinister as that may be, but deeper, darker, psychopompian, if I can use such a word.  In fact, they seemed to function as psychic stepping stones into the past: first to those aforementioned Spectre Man drinking binges, enjoying the afternoon antics of men if rubber monster costumes destroying cardboard cities, and; second, even further back, back to the drainage canals and open sewers of my boyhood in Northern Indiana, a place of infection, mutation and primitive forms. 

I have mentioned a certain posturing for attention in Toyonaga’s sculptures, which may well be related to an insecurity of form, an indecisiveness of nature that renders the object rather impotent, or at least indecisive, transitional.  These objects all seem to be between; they are between states of being, between stone and flesh, between life and death.  There is a seediness to the work, and I am not speaking of moral character, but rather a layered and continuously erupting dynamic evoking both violation and gestation, a rupturing or peeling away of the shell or sheath that exposes under layers of embryonic mud-flesh or metal mucous, be it over-ripe or petrified—as if these were the cracked seeds of some hideous accident, some useless bio-industrial life form.  In many of these objects, what looks like a faucet handle (or steering wheel) is inserted, along with other plumbing-friendly fixtures (pipes, spigots) as if some fluid needed to be drained or channeled.  All this irrigation equipment is indicative of a flow running through the collection, a flow that has something to do with body and something to do with the building the body inhabits.  In fact, Toyonaga’s fixation with plumbing binds the pieces in a common architecture of ruin and renewal—the latter being a mutant renewal, unholy, unhuman, or as the show title suggests, Mephistophelean.

But it’s not all fun as I seem to make it sound.  The various orifices of these objects might be sphincters or they might be gun muzzles depending on your disposition.  Some of the work is vaguely militaristic.  One piece reminded me of a German gun bunker packed in mud and jammed into the jaws of a clam shell made of Catskill granite. Another looks like a drivable eyeball in a sandstone gourd fronted by a set of clay tentacles, reticulated like flexible electrical conduit. Some of the work is less aggressive, more larval.  One piece resembled a large trilobite-like creature, rolled over on its back like a cat and inviting the onlooker to tickle its belly.   Most of the objects look as if they are meant to move, but aren’t quite sure what medium they should be moving through. The appendages thus evolved seem arbitrary, useless, but that doesn’t stop them from flailing about, or otherwise functioning as attention-getting devices, perched upon their white display pedestals, hailing the hapless aesthete.  Combined with this impotent aggression, is what might be deemed a compensatory parasitism.  They seemed to want to attach themselves to something inside me, and not with good intent, but more like a worm one might pick up while swimming among the animalcules of the unconscious.  Toyonaga does claim the “deep sea of the collective unconscious” as the source of his creativity, and obviously, he wishes to spread the infection.  And indeed I had the impression that some of these objects were not unlike something a doctor might discover on an x-ray of the inside of my intestines as he speaks in hushed tones to the nurse on the other side of the hospital room and they both look over at me with a combination of pity and horror in their eyes.

Another influence on Toyonaga’s work was the landscape of the Catskill mountains, since he spent some time there.  And this was a point of connection.  I myself have many Catskill Mountain memories and associations, but mine have more to do with the Hudson Valley School of Romantic Painting, people like Thomas Cole and his crowd.  More particularly, I remember one night when me and my friend Rudy re-enacted a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, “Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” with a bottle of Baker’s bourbon, some special cigarettes and several hours of conversation that would probably make no sense today.    But enough of romanticism.  Toyonaga gave me a new lens on that old landscape— and the Catskills do seem old, old and used, worn down by endless rivers and rain, and inhabited many times over and over.  Walking in the woods, you see the evidence of past life everywhere, revealed in layers of field stone prodding up out of the earth and sometimes manifesting in confections of jagged rock, wood, moss, insect nests, car batteries and occasional beer cans. Having dug often in that stony ground, I am also familiar with the rusted bits of ancient farm implements, oxidized into strange shapes and encrustations.  I was going to quote William Blake here, some lines from the “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” about the genius loci, or the spritus mundi.  But I am thinking more about David Lynch’s Eraserhead, or the Japanese cult classic Iron Man.  I should thank Toyonaga for this fresh paranoid way of appreciating the landscape, as my walks in the woods will now be full of a new anthropo-zoomorphic landscape anxiety.

Toyonaga, I figured, surely must have been inspired by the atomic monsters that waddled through the cities and fields of those old TV shows, with their glued on spikes and their odd combinations of appendages and their flesh of married metal and stone and paper mache that could only be the result of nuclear fusion.  Coincidentally, as I was hurriedly writing down this “insight” in my composition book, a gallery guide approached and gently ushered me towards an “upstairs room” where there was supposedly a “video” playing that would augment my understandingof the show.  I assumed she was just trying to get the weird writing person out of the public eye, so the other guests would not feel uncomfortable.  But there really was a video; it was a compilation of 60s Japanese monster shows like Spectre Man (in this case it was Ultraman). I was quite pleased with the entertainment and watched the tape through several reruns.

But, enough.  I could go on, but I make the art viewing experience too subjective, which kind of makes writing a review pointless.  Besides, after I had made all these notes and wrote most of this review, I got around to looking at the show catalog which, along with large beautifully reproduced color plates, contains an essay written by curator Midori Yamamura, from which I got the historical background and contemporary context I was sorely lacking.

“The superficiality of today’s Japanese culture,” wrote Takashi Murakami, in his ground-breaking 2005 exhibition catalog, Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, “is a collective effort to transform Japan’s horrendous experience of nuclear annihilation.”  According to Murakami, a second generation post-World-War II Japanese artist (b.1962), this repressed, morbid anxiety of the war continues to haunt postwar Japanese art and popular culture, a phenomenon similar to what Sigmund Freud described in his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny.”   

The essay goes on to discuss repetition-compulsion syndrome and the idea of art as explosion. Yamamura’s essay is enlightening; especially for her insight into US/Japan post-war relations and the suppression of certain types of imagery in the spirit of capitalism and good relations with the West.  As to the influence of Japanese TV shows or pop culture, the artist himself, surprisingly, denies such associations, or at least any explicit borrowing, claiming his amorphous sculptures come from a deeper place, and that they carry no message, “explicit or implied.”    Just like I was saying.

“Ryo Toyonaga: Mephistophelean” is on view from March 18th, 2009 to May 15 2009, at The Vilchek Foundation, 167 East 73rd Street, New York, NY 10021.  The Vilchek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilchek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia.  The mission of the foundation, to honor the contributions of foreign-born scholars and artists living in the United States was inspired by the couple’s careers in biomedical science and art history, respectively, as well as their personal experiences and appreciation for the opportunities they received as newcomers to this country.




1        One person was struck by a certain similarity to Buddhist sculpture.

2        Spectre Man was a half hour show in which the hero, did regular battle with gigantic monsters that seemed to be forever rising out of the sea or some landfill, hell bent on destroying Tokyo.  It was most notable for the absurdly faked sets and the rubber monster suits.

3   I used to have dreams of the Bomb rattling around in the ventilation ducts of my house, after which it would fall from some vent in the ceiling onto my plate, sit there for a minute and then explode leaving me floating above the world in a partially fragmented state, knowing I was dead.