The museum has teamed up with the University of Hawai‘i to present a two-venue, two-part exhibition—Imayō: Japan’s New Traditionists. The part one is already on view at UH’s Art Gallery, and part two opens at HoMA tomorrow, Oct. 13. The exhibition has two months of related programming, including a free talk by The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mary Griggs Burke curator of Japanese art John Carpenter this Friday, Oct. 14. It’s an art opportunity you don’t want to miss—see you at UH Mānoa’s Art Auditorium. 

Carpenter answered a few questions via email while he is en route to Honolulu.

You’ll be speaking on “the past as future in Japanese contemporary art.” How is the past the future in Japanese contemporary art? Can you give us a preview of what you’ll be covering?
Japanese artists working today, whether working primarily in the country of their birth or abroad, can draw on a nearly limitless array of visual and cultural stimuli, past and present, indigenous, foreign, or global. The capacity for imagery and information to be transmitted almost instantly around the planet has broken down national boundaries in a way unthinkable a century, even 50 years ago—television forever eliminated the idea of foreignness. The artists represented in Imayō: Japan’s New Traditionists, however, have opted to respond for various personal and creative reasons to art of Japan’s past, their own cultural heritage. Rather than viewing this as a conservative tendency, the artists in this exhibition engage in playful, parodic, and often provocative ways with iconic imagery and traditional Japanese artistic techniques. Yet, the artists are not dwelling in the past, they are thinking about what the future holds for Japanese culture. In this regard the contemporary artist is not only a social commentator, but also a prophet.

Since I’m a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York who focuses on premodern Japanese art, I’m interested in exploring ways contemporary artists respond to their own tradition, and how their experiments can make us look at earlier art in new ways. I also will speak of some of the juxtapositions of old and new I have tried out in The Met’s Arts of Japan Galleries.

What is a good example of the past informing a contemporary Japanese artist?
There are numerous examples in this exhibition. Perhaps the most conspicuous is Yamamoto Tarō re-imagining Ogata Kōrin’s famous White and Red Plum Blossom screen with a new color and decorative scheme that playfully suggests the stylized swirling water motif that the 18th-century Kyoto artist made famous has been replaced in our era by the saccharine graphic scheme of Coca-Cola logo.

Kimura Ryōko’s amusing and sometimes erotic representations of modern young people in the poses of figures from the past and presented in the age-old format of folding screen paintings are delightfully provocative. [editor: The work of both these artists are on view in Imayō.]

In my talk, I’ll reflect a bit on how each of the six contemporary artists in the exhibition draws on the past to make a statement about how they see the world around them and what they envision the future will bring.

Are there comparable movements of past traditions informing contemporary artists in other countries or regions?
Of course, this phenomenon is found throughout the history of art in many cultural traditions, even in ancient times. In the modern era, Picasso created works based on Greek and Roman mythology, Dali painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa; Warhol turned Chairman Mao into Pop Art.  

You’ll be visiting our Asian art galleries and vaults with our Japanese art curator Stephen Salel. Are there any pieces in our collection you’re especially looking forward to seeing?
I’ve only been to visit HoMA on two occasions in the past, and was able to view representative works from its tremendous collection of ukiyo-e prints and modern Japanese painting. During this visit I’m looking forward to viewing a Japanese screen painting from the early 17th century on the theme of the famous early 11th-century novel The Tale of Genji. I think that the two panels of the screen, created by artists of the Tosa school, might have originally been connected to a set of screens now in the collection of The Met. In autumn of 2018, The Met will have a Tale of Genji exhibition, so I’ve been viewing works of art related to this theme in collections in Japan and the West.

The Met has a Hokusai Great Wave, the Honolulu Museum of Art has a Great Wave, MFA Boston has a Great Wave.  I have to ask—is there a definitive “best” print of this iconic image? If yes, who has it, and does the community of Asian art curators keep tabs on stuff like this?
The Met has two early impressions of the “Great Wave” and two slightly later impressions. I believe that the MFA Boston has at least five impressions of this iconic print. Early impressions have a crispness of outlines and a more subtle integration of applications of Prussian and Indigo blues. Comparing impressions, whether in person or in good reproductions, allows the viewer to better understand Hokusai’s skills as a draftsman and colorist. Although the application of colorants was the responsibility of a specialist printer, I’m sure that the publisher respected the wishes of the artist in the early pulls of the print. Hokusai’s Great Wave is certainly the most recognized work of Japanese art around the world.