Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Yayoi Kusama: Plagued by Pattern

The Sea in the Evening Glow by Yayoi Kusama, 1988, acrylic on canvas, courtesy a private collection

by Melissa Smolley

I once heard a fascinating firsthand account of what it is like to experience a severe stroke — from a neuroscientist with a unique capacity to ingeniously articulate the event. In what she described as the most transcendent and terrifying experience of her life, she reached an invaluable epiphany pertaining to the interconnected nature of life and the permeable boundaries we misinterpret as rigid. In her experience, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor felt the barriers of self and other blend: “I’m propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy.” More intriguing still is that the influential Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, describes a similar childhood experience that would later influence her art significantly: “One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.”

Epiphany often precariously straddles the brink between insight and insanity, where they say true genius resides. It is the intensity of the realization that both perpetuates the expression of the idea, and unrelentingly antagonizes the artist; which is precisely the case for Yayoi Kusama, whose works are now on exhibit at the UMFA. In attempts to both convey and cope with her hallucinatory encounters, Kusama creates intricate patterns that envelope the canvas, the viewer, and the surrounding environment. The aesthetics of her work directly relates to her perception of the immersive nature of the whole, and the malleable peripheries that define reality. Although the contextual information about the artist and her self-described difficulty with disassociation is infinitely interesting, what is truly striking about Yayoi Kusama is the visual manifestation of her awareness and profound understanding.

Compul by Yayoi Kusama

Kusama’s work is truly mesmerizing; it reverberates with energy and intricacy that entrances the viewer. Viewed from afar, Kusama’s work reads as sophisticated and minimalistic; upon closer inspection the viewer is enthralled by the inconceivable complexity of Kusama’s patterns. The subtle relationship between micro- and macrocosm is revealed in her work, as wordlessly she describes the analogous structure of the infinitesimal and the infinite, the molecular and the astronomical and the broad intermediate spectrum. With an immersive quality paralleled by few, Kusama executes elaborate patterns with astonishing precision, imbuing her paintings with transcendencent potential.

The Ea by Yayoi Kusama

Kusama’s work is widely influential, and since her debut within the New York art scene in the late 1950s, she has been a primary figure in contemporary art. A colleague of Judd, Warhol, Oldenberg, Johns, and many other revolutionary artists of the time, Kusama’s contributions the art world continue to be invaluable. The variety of vehicles through which she chooses to express her vision is a testament to her prolific achievements as an artist: she utilizes performance, installation and painting, all with meticulous success. Although her art is a multifaceted medium for expression, it is also her self prescribed medicine for sanity, and she is often quoted saying, “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” Kusama voluntarily resides in a mental hospital in Tokyo, where she continues to produce work. Like so many brilliant individuals, the intensity of her intellect is a heavy burden to bear and it is through art that she has found respite from the onus of obsession. Through her art we are afforded a rare glimpse of the meticulous mind that created the dizzying splendor of complex repetition, masterful in concept and in consummation. The retrospective collection, Yayoi Kusama: Decades at the UMFA is a visual opportunity not to be missed.

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