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Cultural Contrasts

Complementary exhibits at CSUN look at the elegant and provincial in Japan.

September 03, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To kick off the school year, and, by extension, the gallery season, the Art Dome at CSUN is hosting complementary exhibitions, variations on the theme of Japanese life and culture. A generous show of kimonos and a documentary project by Akiko Arita, a young Japanese photographer retracing her roots to a small town in Japan, give us a double window on the country and culture.

The CSUN Art Dome, one of the last reminders of the Northridge earthquake, can be relied on to supply worthwhile art. This first show of the season relies as much on anthropology as on art per se, but along the way, facets of artistic expression are encountered.

Then again, there is something slightly surreal about the kimono exhibition in its pure state. A series of the large, elaborately ornamented garments hangs on poles, the garments' functional nature stripped away. Kimonos are examples of an ornate fashion tradition dating back, in its earliest form, to the 700s.

The stately designs on the fabric, made with patterns printed from wood blocks and later paper stencils, bring landscape and other pictorial elements into the service of decorative art.

As seen in this sampling, kimonos remain one of the world's more cohesive and indigenous examples of clothing as cultural expression.

If kimonos--like any mode of fashion--refer to the hosting culture in an inherently abstract way, the other show in the gallery is plainly representational in its ambition: Arita's fairly sizable photographic essay on life in the town of Noto seeks to expose the minutiae of real life in that place.

She's out to document a provincial lifestyle in this fishing village 420 miles from Tokyo, a life known to her parents and still based on rituals and traditions that resist high-tech, contemporary accouterments. As such, Arita mostly adopts a reportorial approach, with few pretensions toward arty devices or attitudes in her work.

As shown in Arita's show, life in Noto is slower and more spiritually aligned, more tied to the cycles of seasons and work patterns than in urban settings.

"Praying Towards Offshore Shrine" depicts people in a boat, supplicants before a shrine anchored off the coast. We also see images of a "land blessing ceremony," undertaken before her parents began construction of their home. Arita finds plenty to shoot at various festivals in the town, including the costume-friendly Spring Festival.

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The lingering agrarian ethics in Noto are nicely implied in the photo titled "Drying Beans," in which a man performing the title's activity in his suburban frontyard is silhouetted, backlighted by a strong wash of late afternoon sun.

The image called "Ironing Shirts" finds a man, out of focus because of his motions, in a neatly arrayed room that could be seen as the real subject of the photograph. The message: Individuals are fleeting, culture and architecture more lasting.

One of the most striking images is "Old Lady in Kimono," a frank portrait of an elder whose weathered skin is in sharp contrast to the refinement and sheen of her kimono. A subtext of the generational continuum buzzes beneath the surface.

In this and other select images, Arita slips over the subjective, intangible line from photojournalism into art, without really trying. That can be some of the best art, encountered accidentally on the road to self-realization, or, in this case, rediscovery of roots.

BE THERE

"Akiko Arita: Noto, Exploring My Native Culture in Japan" and "Japanese Kimonos: Traditional Motifs," through Sept. 26 at the Cal State Northridge Art Dome, 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge. Monday and Saturday, noon-4 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; (818) 677-2226.

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