Estrangement, reactive humor, the illogic of dreams — any of these descriptors could sum up Satoshi Kojima’s inaugural exhibition at Bridget Donahue, a gathering of painted tableaus featuring cartoonish figures in highly artificial settings. Standing before one, I’m faced with twin males walking in opposite directions along railroad tracks passing an elevated station platform. Both figures have their right hand raised in a hailing gesture, their left lowered as if to estimate the space between their palms and the tracks below. Though the painting’s title, “Last Dance” (2016), hints at an impending and predictably disastrous confrontation with a train, reconciling this threat with the lightness of the painting’s color, its schematic drawing, and the artist’s seeming sardonic indifference to the scene’s outcome, suggests an anesthetized sensibility.
For the most part, Kojima’s paintings do not examine human relationships — they fondle them like a bear fondles picnic food. Understated formal elements, often mismatched to the odd events depicted, imply an emotional disconnect that is tenaciously adhered to. Ironically upbeat design patterns reflecting a party-favor aesthetic introduce energy that is then sapped by truncated dramas. Measuring, on average, six to eight feet in either direction, the size of the pieces compels a viewer to return again and again to each canvas, vainly seeking hints about the artist’s feelings toward it.
The show’s giddy nihilism is assembled from easily readable individual images that maintain a dark babble of disconcerting humor. “Weather Report” (2016) offers a tribal functionary holding a weathervane, pointing with neoclassical élan toward a cartoon raincloud. The Broadway-like sign on the scene’s stagy plinth reads “ECLIPSE.” With little effort, one can imagine it flashing in synch with a repetitive club-music thump — the generic sort one hears in shopping malls.
Kojima is both talented and visually astute. In strictly formal terms, each canvas is tightly conceived and carefully contained, but so too are his narrative restrictions. His range seems consciously limited, extending from sentimental encounters like the Beauty and the Beast–themed “Blue Room” (2016) to the advertising glitz of “DJ Box” (2017). What’s missing from the latter is an actual feeling for music and dance. Kojima’s view of the DJ in “DJ Box” feels icy and brittle.
To be fair, it is hardly unusual to feel alienated in a dance club. But on balance, most of the situations in Kojima’s paintings are just plain bizarre. “Beautiful Things” (2013) leaves a viewer pondering floating female figures in red heels, presumably pantless, squatting and defecating into cartoon bubbles eagerly grasped from below by robotic males with square heads. Scenes like this suggest an affinity with the work of Peter Williams, a painter of equally odd figurative vignettes, whose big-tent theatrics present viewers with comparably crafted and similarly conjured puzzles. It bears noting that Williams took part in a group show last year at DC Moore called Me, My, Mine that showcased the work of artists who, like Kojima, share an oddly distant alienation from their own subject matter.
In light of this unsettling trend, the arrangement of the pieces in this exhibition proved perhaps unintentionally poignant. The palest canvases of the group were hung near the light-flooded front windows of the gallery, while the more intensely colored pictures were placed in the rear, where warmer artificial light amplified their deeper palette. This struck me as counterintuitive. I would have expected to see the brighter pictures near the windows, as they could better withstand the full-spectrum light and thus balance the overall appearance of the installation. As installed, it appears as if Kojimas’s dreams are fading into the light coming in from the Bowery, where the gallery is located. I cannot imagine a more potent metaphor for the art world’s habitual detachment from reality than the sight of “Candy and Whips” (2015) dissolving into actual sunlight, particularly sunlight shining on one of the most historically tragic thoroughfares in NYC. In a jarring way, it emphasizes how the Bowery’s sad and squalid history has been all but erased by its opposite — luxury housing and art galleries touting expensive fantasies.
Satoshi Kojima continues at Bridget Donahue (99 Bowery) through August 4.