Leiko Ikemura is a Japanese born / Berlin based painter and sculptor, and has had a highly acclaimed five-decade career in Europe and Asia. Ikemura departed from Japan in 1972 to study art in Seville, Spain, before moving to Switzerland in 1979, and then settling in Germany in 1991. Like her European peers Marlene Dumas (b. 1953) and Miriam Cahn (b. 1949), Ikemura invokes the age-old authority of representational oil paint to address contemporary matters of social justice, ecology, ancient folktales, and the sublime.
Ikemura’s works show representations of women, which have been central to Ikemura’s practice since the beginning of the 1980s. Early paintings, pastels, and drawings demonstrate the tough Expressionist roots of her style and approach to subject matter, which first brought her acclaim in Switzerland and Germany. In the early 1990s, Ikemura began to explore ceramic sculpture using rough clay formed by hand, colorfully glazed, and then fired in a kiln. Reminiscent of both Japanese Haniwa figures and Western medieval carvings, these incised and ruggedly-built heads, torsos, dwellings, and symbolic forms continued to embody the directness and raw vitality of Ikemura’s early spirit, while a transition was occurring in her painting.
Concurrently, Ikemura began making a new series of works that she titled Girls that represent a distinct stylistic evolution for her. These paintings are a veiled critique of the infantilized representation of women as passive and voiceless in Japanese Manga and Kawaii culture and fine art. The Girls series utilized a new palette, technique, and materials; with Ikemura applying and pouring radiant passages of magenta, lapis, violet, tangerine, lemon, and apricot in contrasting consistencies on to semi-transparent burlap canvases that she had prepared with rich umber, chocolate, and ebony grounds. The paintings are life-size, confrontational and highly nuanced in evoking both elation and empathy; and they reveal a complexity, inner darkness, and psychological depth that belies their seductive appearances. Ikemura is unabashed in her pursuit of the sublime in art. The Girls share a remarkable chromatic affinity and emotional resonance with painters as diverse as Emil Nolde and Mark Rothko.
While there are references to the German Romantic tradition in her works, it is important to acknowledge that Ikemura grew up nearby the Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture; which is the sacred and spiritual home of Japanese Shinto. Ikemura states that her hope is “to visualize the cosmos beyond time and border, beyond gender, and to accentuate the vulnerabilities and the strength of female beings and nature.” The transparency of the glass and the translucent ethereality of Ikemura’s brushwork underlines an existential blurring of the distinction between being and non-being, and organic and inorganic matter; reflecting the animism of Shinto and the Buddhist inflected philosophy of the great Japanese thinker Kitaro Nishida.
Selected solo museum exhibitions include: Bonner Kunstverein (1983); Museum of Contemporary Art, Kunstmuseum Basel (1987); Musée Cantonal des Beaux Arts, Lausanne (1988, 2002); Tokyo Biennale (1988); The Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI (1999); Morat-Institut, Freiburg (2000); Melbourne Biennale (1999); Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota (2000); Kunstmuseum Lichtenstein, Vaduz (2002); Kunsthalle Recklinghausen (2004, 2019); Ulmer Museum (2005); KOLUMBA, Cologne (2005, 2012); Kunstverein Bonn (2006); The Vangi Sculpture Garden Museum, Mishima (2006, 2014); Langen Foundation, Neuss (2007); Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffhausen (2008); Museum of Sauerland Arnsberg (2010); The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (2011); Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (2012, 2022); Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe (2013); Staatliches Museum für Kunst, Nürnberg (2014); Museum Sinclair-Haus, Bad Homburg (2014); Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne (2015); Nevada Museum of Art, Reno (2016); National Art Center, Tokyo (2019); Kunstmuseum Basel (2019); Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts, Norwich (2021); Nordiska Akvarellmuseet, Skärhamn (2019); Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Caja de Burgos (2019); Stiftung Reinbeckhallen, Berlin (2021); CAC La Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències Valencia (2021); and Herbert Gerisch-Stiftung, Neumünster (2022). Forthcoming solo museum in 2023 include: the Georg Kolbe Museum, Berlin, and the Museo de Arte Zapopan in Guadalajara, Mexico.