Tomoaki Ishihara: Ectoplasm #4 (detail), 2005-13, Styrofoam and leather sculpture, 53 inches high, and C-print, 24 by 20 inches; at MEM. 

 

 

Tomoaki Ishihara has been an important, cutting-edge artist since the 1980s. Tackling ideas of personal identity and individuality, his works have included nude photographic self-portraits printed on large sculptural forms (such as a ramplike spiral of stretched canvases), enormous close-up photographs of drops of his blood, and blurred shots of his screaming face in various public places. He has shown extensively in the past, including in the Venice Biennale Aperto of 1988. But lately his work has been less visible. Held at MEM (which, according to the gallery's director, Katsuya Ishida, stands for Multiply Encoded Messages—i.e., art), Ishihara's first show since 2004 featured a selection of works (all 2013) that take his themes to new places.

Titled "Aura, Ectoplasm," the exhibition centered on two multipart pieces, Ectoplasm #4 and Ectoplasm #5, each consisting of a C-print self-portrait and a sculpture. In each photograph, the artist, nude, faces the camera straight-on with his arms at his sides, and with a lumpy chain of different-size balls—collectively encased in a sheath sewn from multiple pieces of leather—suspended from his mouth by means of a plastic mouthpiece. The dangling sculptures suggest organic forms, their individual components evoking seedpods or eggs, and their connective structure possibly alluding to a spine or linked internal organs. Hanging down the front of his body, concealing his genitals, they convey a sense of volume without much weight. In the gallery space, the sculptures hung from the ceiling. The photos show the objects and artist as equivalent skin-covered forms, while in the gallery the viewer's body, naked beneath the second skin of clothes, was implicated in this dialogue. 

Also on view were five gelatin silver prints, each titled U.S.P. (short for "untitled self portrait"), with the year and a sequence number. The prints present the artist, again nude, in a contorted posture isolated against a monochrome background. Looping lines are drawn in oil pastel on top of part or all of his body. The compositions, with their square formats, seem to have no definite top or bottom, as though they could be oriented in any way. Although the focus is soft, one image is unquestionably of his butt. In another the figure appears to grasp a drawn line, while elsewhere a mark circles his head.

Seven large gelatin silver prints, each called Projection (again with year and sequence number), are photograms of seamed clear-plastic spheres that Ishihara made and sold for buyers to assemble. Clustered like blood platelets, the spheres somehow capture light in a dark field. Their shadowy vagueness is in keeping with Ishihara's own physical evasiveness in much of his work. Even when he exposes himself, he is often sneaking out of view, as in the "U.S.P." series, in which he is central but blurred, inhabiting an uncertain reality. In the "Ectoplasms," however, he is surprisingly direct, perhaps signaling a new direction for his art.