Makoto Aida: De Ni, 2016, disposable plastic tray, urethane foam, and acrylic gouache, 8⅞ by 11⅜ by 3 inches, from the series “Lunchbox Paintings”; at Mizuma. 

The photograph accompanying this review looks better than the actual work on the wall. The photograph looks like a painting, and feels like earnest art. The actual work looks flimsy and feels flippant. If it were not for the artist’s reputation (second in Japan only to that of Takashi Murakami), you would mentally discard the work in that bottomless wastebin of uncooked ideas. Much of Makoto Aida’s work is sketchlike, and is often interesting for that. Not this time.

“Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things” was advertised as Aida’s major self-retrospective statement on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. Prior to the show’s opening, the only available promotional material was a vague press release with a photograph of Prime Minister Shinz┼Ź Abe overlaid with the show’s title, which was taken from Tenshin Okakura’s Book of Tea (1906), a classic of Japanese aesthetics. I, for one, was duped by the PR into thinking that this was going to be a follow-up to Aida’s tirade (a collaboration with his wife and son) against Abe and his party at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) last year, which built on the artist’s parodies of the Japanese Right since the ’90s. Instead, Aida mounted what he called a “‘painting exhibition’–esque exhibition,” presenting fifty-four disposable plastic bento boxes filled with colorfully hand-painted urethane-foam squirts, dribbles, and turds that revisited the history of modern painting.

Some were worth lingering over. But even with those, the fast food materials and crap shapes made it hard to enjoy the colors and textures and their weird weightlessness without the suspicion that you were looking at a joke. Indeed, at the gallery’s entrance was a handout titled “On the Lunchbox Paintings Series,” in which Aida fed you the metadata you needed to properly digest the show. The compartments of the bento box are like a Mondrian, he wrote. The “vacant yet voluminous” urethane foam enables bogus expressionistic brushstrokes à la Roy Lichtenstein or Takashi Murakami. Painting the surface of the foam (it’s white when squirted) allows one to build up colorful facture like Willem de Kooning or Kazuo Shiraga without wasting paint. The seriality and format restrictions are a nod to On Kawara. The artist uses kitsch to “hoodwink the art market” like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. And so on. The bamboo, cherry blossom, and kimono patterns originally printed on the plastic of the bento boxes saw to it that Japanese stereotypes, too, were dragged into this (to rephrase) “voluminous yet vacuous” game.

It’s odd to me that Aida should use this anniversary show as an occasion to look back at his career through the lens of abstraction, since his reputation rests on figurative subject matter. He has proved many times over that he is an exceptional draftsman and object-maker, but the reason he is famous is that he expresses whatever he wants, however vulgar or politically incorrect. Versus Murakami’s open willingness to be the global art world’s token Nipponese, Aida has offered a model of personal integrity and local-first attitude that has inspired some younger Japanese artists of a political bent, like the collective Chim-Pom. In addition, ever since he refused to cave into pressures from museum officials to change or remove part of the aforementioned antigovernment work at MOT last year, Aida has become a rallying point for freedom of expression. But there’s a fine line with Aida between being free and being blithe, between being courageous and being a jackass.

Aida is, after all, an artist notorious for paintings of mutilated girls done in a nihonga (neoclassical) style. A few years ago, he published a book of musings titled Why Haven’t Little Girls’ Beautiful Breasts Been Carved in Marble? If dirty old man imagery can be legitimized by being finely painted and knowingly plugged into the history of art, then can an innocuous arrangement of colorful shapes (i.e., abstraction) be delegitimized despite having all its art historical credentials in order? How high can girls’ nipples go? Well, how low can formalism go? Is there a threshold below which painting about painting is no longer art? Are refinement and vulgarity compatible?

“The content of the work is sure to bring satisfaction to all contemporary art collectors of a global mindset,” writes Mizuma Gallery, in one of the glibbest lines I have ever seen on a first-tier gallery press release. Aida has made a number of works over the years protesting an art world governed by English while making fun of his own monolingualism. Is that all this show is? A caricature of the hoity-toity Western art world and its lingua franca of abstraction, and of the artist’s own inability to see in either anything but puff?