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by Kay Itoi
Fresh from its success in Basel -- selling out the booth at VOLTashow 02 in June -- the Tokyo gallery Taro Nasu (which changed its name from Taro Nasu Gallery to Taro Nasu this month) opened a branch in Osaka in western Japan on June 30. With an interior designed by the hot architect Jun Aoki, the new Taro Nasu Osaka is a tiny but ambitious space.

How small is the Taro Nasu Osaka? It boasts 26 square meters (about 280 square feet) of gallery space.

Though Osaka is the countryís second largest city with many prominent museums and centuries of art collecting history, few young contemporary art dealers have ventured out west, with Kodama Gallery (see below) as an exception. Nasu, established in 1998 in Tokyo, jumped at the chance when a first-floor space became available in an apartment building near Shinsaibashi, Osakaís glamorous shopping district.

"It makes sense to have an outpost in western Japan," says Nasu. Japanese see the country as a two-part island, with Osaka as the center of the West and Tokyo as the capital of the East. The West has more museums and collectors than the East. "Curators and collectors from the West may stop by the gallery in Tokyo if they happen to be there on business, but if we are here, itís much easier."

Nasu wanted "a gallery that challenges the artist." Aoki, the architect, whoís worked on the Louis Vuitton flagship stores in New York and Tokyo as well as the Aomori Museum of Art, the •11.2-billion ($98 million) facility slated to open in northern Japan on July 14, 2006, couldnít agree more. "As opposed to the neutrality of a white cube, we created a space an artist has to confront and fight with," says Aoki.

Aoki has placed a movable room on wheels inside the gallery, which is a deep, narrow space. Inside the little room is a refrigerated wine cellar and a tiny bar.

The room-in-the-gallery can actually be located anywhere in the space. Taro Nasu Osaka is being inaugurated by a solo show by Takeharu Ogai (b. 1969), who had sold a •6 million ($52,174) installation piece at VOLTAshow 02. For the exhibition titled "White Hole Gift Shop" (on view through Oct. 1), Ogai painted the little movable room black and left it in the middle of the space, dividing the gallery into front and back sections. The sun-filled front part is open and pleasant, while the back affects an aura of mystery.

The artist dotted the gallery with his pieces, most of which are made of organic, natural items that he found in the forest near his studio in Yamanashi, in central Japan.

A gorgeous Wild Rose Crown (2006) is made of thorny branches and pine cones twisted into the shape of a tiara, while Goose, Lion and Giraffe all look like long sticks of driftwood -- though if rested against the wall and illuminated by a light from a certain angle, they produce beautiful shadows that resemble, respectively, a goose, a lion and a giraffe. Ogai also made ten balls of mud, calling them Planet (2006), with mud he took from different areas so each has a different color and texture.

So how did the artist "fight" with the new space? "I hope the word gets out that thereís this new, weird shop selling strange items, and that makes people curious enough to come and see," says Nasu. "Then we can say íheís put up a good fight.í"

Chihiro Moriís "Finger Pickles" at Kodama
Probably the most internationally known contemporary art gallery in Osaka, Kodama Gallery keeps pushing new talents from western Japan. One such young artist is Chihiro Mori (b. 1978), whose solo show, titled "Finger Pickles," filled the three rooms that together make up the Osaka gallery in June 2006.

Moriís work is difficult to fit into a neat package. In the first gallery, the walls are covered with dozens of small, quick cartoon-like drawings, often depicting injured humans or jumbles of letters. She also painted directly onto one wall a picture of a wide-eyed girl and a moth, based on drawings she did as a child.

In the next room she presented a group of paintings. FOX BOY (claw mark) (2006) shows a skinny young man with a tail, standing next to a giant arm. His face is covered by something that looks like intestines. Another painting is a strangely beautiful image of ballerinas. The room also contained a kind of sculpture, titled finger Buddhist alter (sense of knees) (2006). A number of little plastic items, stones and pieces of glass are displayed on six tiers of black material, which sit on a table. In the final room was helmet stalactite cave (group of pupils) (2006), an orange motorcycle helmet that had been turned into a kind of diorama, its inside resembling a cave filled with gray stalagmites, some of which resembled the Buddha.

The world according to Mori is confused, out of balance and distorted. She often tears apart human and animal bodies and reassembles them in a strange way, as if trying to render her surroundings in a way thatís easier to deal with.

If a viewer doesnít get it, thatís fine with Kimiyoshi Kodama, the owner of the gallery. "I believe my job is to show what I donít understand, what the audience doesnít get easily," he says. "Contemporary art brings forth new values. I donít consider something one can understand with a conventional thinking to be contemporary art."

Kodama, who participated in the Gramercy Art Fair in New York back in 1998, even before he had a gallery, also believes that his mission as a gallerist is "to bring talented artists to where the market is," he says -- and thatís in the U.S. and Europe, not Japan.

Kodama has since set up shop in Osaka, and continues to make a splash at the Armory Show in New York and other art fairs, with such artists as Zon Ito (see below) and Ryoko Aoki. He plans to participate at the forthcoming Armory Show in 2007.

Still, the market in Japan is slowly expanding as well. "When I started seven years ago, we had no collectors who spent $1 million a year on contemporary art," says Kodama, who opened a branch in Tokyo two years ago. "Now we have several of them."

Three solo exhibitions at the National Museum
The National Museum of Art, Osaka, has a history of showing and purchasing the works by up-and-coming artists -- unusual for Japanese national museums, which generally prefer big names. The museum is currently showing three such artists, presented not together in a group exhibition but rather as three solo shows, with a curator in charge of each one. "We didnít necessarily seek a common theme," says curator Atsuhiko Shima. "But a viewer might find a loose similarity among their work."

"Three Individuals," June 27-Sept. 18, 2006, presents both new and older works by Hajime Imamura (b. 1957), Zon Ito (b. 1971) and Yoshihiro Suda (b. 1969).

Imamura turns everyday objects into humorous and thought-provoking art pieces. A kettle perforated with holes -- itís more of a kettle-shaped latticework at this point -- sits on top of a small refrigerator filled with an elaborate geometric structure made of thin wire. An orange pinwheel attached to the top of a rice cooker spins around as it starts cooking and gets hot, as if to visualize the idea of "heat." They make one stop and wonder how we all came to depend on these appliances.

Ito covered the walls of the gallery with large embroidery-on-fabric pieces. Though the notion of "embroidery" might suggest delicate and feminine handicrafts, Itoís stitchery is dynamic and bold. He creates surreal and decorative images by pairing what looks like wild trees and leaves and parts of animalsí bodies with his colorful stitches.

Sudaís wood carvings of flowers and plants are so life-like that itís hard to believe that they arenít real. For the show, he built three narrow, white structures inside the gallery and placed a flower in each. He also made a small hut holding an artificial but extremely realistic lotus floating in a pond, which is a black acrylic panel.

What do these artists have in common? Their works are elegant, have a distinctive sense of style and, to a varying degree, deal with plants. It is up to each viewer to find more similarities or differences.

Osaka awaits another museum
One of Japanís major museum collections doesnít have a home. The city of Osaka has yet to start building the tentatively named Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, 25 years after the projectís inception.

Originally conceived in 1980, the Osaka City Museum does, however, have a collection. The city aggressively collected works in the 1980s and 1990s, accumulating more than 3,700 pieces. Among them are Amedeo Modiglianiís Nu couche aux cheveus denoues (1917), bought for •1.93 billion ($14.8 million at the time), and Salvador Dalíís Le spectreet le fantome (1931), for •678 million ($5.6 million). As the Japanese economy slowed down, the project stalled in the early 1990s, and has yet to regain momentum.

But one can sometimes take a peek at the collection. Selected works from the museumís holdings have been on view at different venues, including a temporary exhibition space set up in 2004 in the Shinsaibashi shopping district of Osaka. The latest show, titled "Spotlight on Postwar Art," featured 50 works by 27 postwar Japanese and international artists, including Yasumasa Morimura and Miwa Yanagi. And, the National Museum of Art, Osaka, is scheduled to hold a show titled "Osaka Collections," Jan. 16-Mar. 25, 2007, to present the top pieces from the Osaka City Museum collection.

KAY ITOI is author of In Search of Lost Masterpieces (Jiji Press, 2001).