Maryleen Schiltkamp's Japonismes

from the November/December 2003 issue of Gallery & Studio

Maryleen Schiltkamp, an artist of Dutch heritage born in the Netherlands Antilles who maintains studios in Amsterdam and New York City, has long been one of our more historically aware contemporary artists, forging "connections between the classical and the modern, the figurative and the abstract, " as noted in a previous review in these pages.

Schiltkamp's growing interest in Japanese art started in 1996, when a Japanese friend introduced her to Zen Buddhism, calligraphy, sumi-e brush drawing, ukiyo-e print, and other aspects of the culture. Later, she studied the impact that woodblock prints had on Western art - particularly that of her fellow Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, who wrote in one of his famous letters to his brother Theo: "I admire the most popular Japanese prints, colored in flat areas, and for the same reasons that I admire Rubens and Veronese."

Characteristically, Schiltkamp enters the cross cultural dialogue from a postmodern perspective in a body of work that she exhibited for the first time at the Bungei Shunju Gallery in Tokyo 1998. It speaks well for her venture that a Western artist endeavoring to synthesize Renaissance perspective with the decorative planes characteristic of Japanese art would meet with such success in Japan that Schiltkamp was invited to have a second show in the same venue in June of 2003. And it was our own good fortune that Maryleen Schiltkamp's exhibition, "Japonismes" had its New York City debut at The Nippon Gallery, 145 West 57th Street, in October of this year.

Although the French term "Japonism" (as distinct from its more superficial cousin "Japonaiserie") originated when Western artists in Paris began to experiment seriously with Japanese aesthetic principles in the early years of the nineteenth century, Schiltkamp has brought about a much bolder synthesis of East and West than would have been possible at that time.

Included along with paintings were works on paper, scrolls, and folding screens - all demonstrating how thoroughly Schiltkamp has assimilated aspects of Japanese art, without sacrificing those virtues which have long characterized her own style. Of the challenges involved in bringing about such a synthesis, Schiltkamp observes that her venture "has the intensity of longing for a state of awareness, for the Western mind almost impossible to reach."

This is an especially astute statement, since that very intensity and longing that Schiltkamp speaks of creates an aesthetic excitement, which can only occur in a hybrid endeavor such as this one. For Schiltkamp does not merely "appropriate" elements of Japanese art in the opportunistic sense that the term is normally used today; rather, she apprehends its very spirit, creating works of a unique originality precisely because they are a highly gifted Western artist's take on Eastern aesthetics.

Thus, in a painting such as "Calligraphy (2003)," Schiltkamp transforms a Japanese written character into a composition in oil on canvas that seems to reference multiple aspects of Western art as well. With its boldly brushed linear forms and a palette of red and blue hues set off by a tan ground, this joyously animated painting is akin to the whimsical compositions in which Paul Klee "takes a line for a little walk." Schiltkamp, however, puts her own spin on these buouyant linear shapes, making them dance across the cavas in a manner that reminds one of the Asian ideogram's figurative origins. Thus by transforming the character in her own peculiarly Western manner, Schiltkamp ends up returning it to its roots, so to speak.

Indeed, what impresses one about Schiltkamp's encounter with Japanese art is how little she strives to make her work actually look Japanese, even when she adopts traditional materials, subjects, and even formats, as seen in "Phoenix (2003)" and "Mandarin Ducks (2002)." Although both works are Sumi-e scrolls and depict subjects familiar in such formats in a traditional ink painting technique, Schiltkamp's brush strokes remain distinctively, recognizably her own, with the same sinuous grace that we see in the contours of her neoclassical compositions in oils on canvas.

Schiltkamp's unique sensibility comes across as well in oils as "Geisha, Tortoise & Crane," which treats a traditional subject in a manner more akin to the sensual arabesques of Art Nouveau than to the more austere decorativeness of ukiyo-e prints, and "Genji," where another familiar theme takes on a neo-Fauvist boldness that can only be compared to the late African American artist Bob Thompson's strident reprises of the Old Masters.

One of the wittiest paintings in the show, as trenchant as one of Mark Tansey's wry art commentaries, was Schiltkamp's "Vanishing Point," based on a 17th century pastoral landscape by Nicolas Poussin, in which a group of shepherds attempts to decipher an inscription on a stone tomb. In Schiltkamp's painting, however, the figures in the classical grouping appear to inspect the picture plane itself, which advances by virtue of a merging of Cezanne-esque paint handling and Eastern aesthetics to contradict the implied perspective of the Arcadian landscape that they inhabit.

Another pivotal painting is "Shibashi," and oil portrait of an elderly Japanese person with downcast eyes in the act of donning a decorative kimono, painted with a succulent sensitivity that, again, pays simultaneous tribute to the planar innovations of Cezanne and the exquisite simplicity of Japanese aesthetics. Painted in 1998, [...] this painting is emblematic of the reverence and beauty permeating this entire exhibition.

Ed McCormack
"Gallery & Studio"
New York, November/December 2003