I first saw Leiko Ikemura’s arcane, otherworldly ceramics and paintings in the mid-1990s, at Karsten Greve in Cologne, Germany, and I have been following her work ever since. We met at an event toward the end of the 1990s and stayed in touch. In 2006, Weidle Verlag published Andalusia, our collaboration of images and poems, and the next year I contributed an essay to the catalogue for a two-person show, Leiko Ikemura – Günther Förg: Zwischenräume at the Langen Foundation in Neuss, Germany. For these and other reasons, I cannot claim to be objective about Ikemura’s work. And yet, even if I had not met her, I would still be a great admirer, as the surge of unbridled delight and curiosity that I felt when I first saw her work has never subsided. While Ikemura is well known in Europe and Japan, and has been the focus of many museum and institutional shows in both places, the exhibition Leiko Ikemura: Anima Alma – Works 1981–2022 at Fergus McCaffrey (November 4, 2022–January 28, 2023) is her first in the United States.
To the gallery’s credit, the selection of paintings, sculptures, and drawings spanning more than 40 years add up to a powerful introduction to this unclassifiable, enigmatic artist, whose preoccupations include the interior life of adolescent girls; mythical Japanese creatures such as usagi (rabbits), which are considered messengers for the kami (gods); devastated landscapes and environments (Fukushima, firebombing, sea battles between the United States and Japan during World War II); and mystical landscapes that call forth a connection to classical ink painting. Ikemura recognizes that she lives in multiple worlds without fully belonging to any of them.
The 25 paintings, sculptures, and large pastel and charcoal drawings exhibited on the gallery’s two floors, along with a dozen small drawings (dated 1980–88) in a separate room, are not arranged chronologically, nor should they be. Although I have been looking at her work for more than 25 years, her development does not follow any obvious trajectory. An in-depth retrospective might begin to clarify some of the paths she has explored. On the second floor are six works in cast glass (all dated 2021–22), which is a relatively new medium for the artist. As the exhibition’s Latin title, “Anima Alma” (Soul Soul), suggests, Ikemura is concerned with the meeting place of the spiritual and physical, the ineffable and material worlds.
While many American critics have compared Ikemura’s work to that of Marlene Dumas, I want to cast a wider, more complex net to suggest how much of the zeitgeist of the last half century she has made her own. Even though they share some subject matter, an Ikemura would never be mistaken for a Dumas, nor would anyone confuse her adolescent girls with those of Yoshitomo Nara, for instance. In fact, Ikemura seems to have absorbed and transformed aspects of Constantin Brancusi, Japanese folk art, Sosaku Kokeshi dolls, classical Japanese ink painting, postwar abstraction, and much else, and her work shares something with that of Francesco Clemente. At the same time, a prolonged encounter with her art quickly reveals that she is a singular, important contemporary artist who has yet to gain recognition in the US. This exhibition is the first step toward changing that.
“Liegende (gelb)” [Lying (Yellow)] (1997) is a glazed terracotta sculpture of two headless young girls in yellow dresses spooning each other, their tubular arms pressed close to their chests. Large circular openings where their heads should be suggest they have been removed. The joined dresses are open at the bottom, but we do not see the girls’ legs. For those who know Ikemura’s work, the motif of a prone young woman is one to which she has returned many times. In this piece, the missing heads are startling and alarming. Why are they missing? Has the sculpture fallen over and broken? Is it farfetched to be reminded of the tubular wooden forms of Sosaku Kokeshi dolls, with the heads separated from the bodies?
The evocation of an inaccessible interior life, mixed with a feeling of irreparable damage, abandonment, vulnerability, and protectiveness, make Ikemura’s work so mysterious. I cannot think of many contemporary artists who are able to stir these feelings without coming across as contrived or theatrical — certainly none of the contemporaries I’ve mentioned.
The six paintings on the ground floor are done in tempera and oil on jute, a coarse fiber. The ghostly figures hover at the brink of dissolution, like clouds ready to dissipate. What am I to make of the gap between the painting’s title, “Girl with a Baby in Dark Red” (2018), and what I see: two similarly dressed young women in profile, walking from right to left, the one on the left holding a creature? The baby’s head seems also to be a skull, perhaps of an animal, while the head of the figure on the right — with its visible rows of teeth — is quite disturbing. Is it a personification of death? Does Ikemura’s use of red suggest vitality or murder? Are these women migrants fleeing disaster?
The ambiguity of Ikemura’s work is one of its defining characteristics. In “Girl for Wedding” (2021) a garland of white and pale violet flowers wraps around the girl’s charcoal gray head; she holds a bundle of blue flowers. The thin coat of paint has rubbed into the rough jute. It is as if she is being simultaneously defined and erased. The bond of process and meaning imbues the work with a powerful, yet elusive and unnamable, presence. This ambiguity is also found in the terracotta sculptures placed on two long, curving pedestals on the first floor. The ghostly white terracotta face “Whisper” (2011–12) appears distantly related to the masks worn in Noh theater. The open mouth seems to be emitting a final sigh. One eye is a crude slit, while the other is barely detectable.
On the second floor, Ikemura conjures two other worlds, one in cast glass and the other in two landscapes from 2014 titled “Zarathustra” and numbered. Rubbing pale pigments into the jute, the artist depicts what could be a lake with mountains on the right. A tree with dark yellow foliage rises from near the middle of the bottom edge, dividing the painting into two unequal areas. The bottom of the tree divides into two large forms, with a prone, open-eyed figure cradled in the tree’s base, as if between its legs. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–85), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a philosophical fiction that dealt with the death of God and the repetition of time and history. Is the figure in the painting meant to represent the metamorphosis of the spirit into the child that Nietzsche’s prophet Zarathustra foretold? What happens next?
The glass works represent a new direction and body of work in Ikemura’s diverse oeuvre, but she is also transporting us into unfamiliar realms of introspection and reflection. Isn’t this something great art is supposed to do? In the opaque greenish-blue “Butterfly Out of Face” (2021–22), a butterfly emerges from a nearly featureless head lying face up. Is the head a cocoon, the place where transformation and the birth of the new take place? In “Usagi with Wings” (2021), a rabbit with a solid arch of feathers is clearly delivering a message. Are we ready to hear what it has to say?
Leiko Ikemura: Anima Alma – Works 1981–2022 continues at Fergus McCaffrey (514 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 28. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.