ICA hot and cool

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In an unlikely pairing, the ICA has somehow managed to hit a just right note, with the international, hip art of Yoshitomo Nara, from Japan, and the personal self-portraits and auto-biographical paintings of Sarah McEneaney, from Philadelphia.

Nara’s angry little figures are incredibly cute as they glare and snarl from their canvas or paper surfaces. Japan, a place of extreme social conformity, has no control over these cartoony forcefields of anger, many with cat-like eyes, or fangs or some other sign of animalistic menace, tempered by Pop sweetness and slick perfection. The multiples also give a sense of the society that turned toys labeled “Made in Japan” into cultural icons.

In contrast, there’s an energetic little boy quality to the random drawings and sketches that fill out the show, scribbled and scrubbed onto scraps of paper and bursting with words.

And that same little boy has created a couple of huge, perfect fiberglass puppies panting with eagerness and love.

Between the perfection of the large pieces and the roughness of the sketches, are paintings on paper like “Soldier” (the middle painting), which shows a pathetically sweet little boy-man emerging from (or ducking into) a hole as flower explosions detonate all around him, surely not a war imagined by a boy at play, but rather a bad dream of veiled threat and coercion masked by faux sweetness.

Upstairs is a retrospective of Sarah McEneaney’s paintings, all quite the opposite from Nara’s commercial tone. Each painting feels lived in and reshaped into McEneaney’s mental spaces (shown, “NJT, 10/01”).

The carefully painted details and impossible perspectives, in the unforgiving medium of egg tempera on wood, provide a realism that has nothing to do with recreating phographic images. In “My Myomectomy,” for example, the point of view is from a place floating above the artist’s stretched out body and also from the artist’s undepicted head on the pillow.

In “Morning,” the view of McEneaney’s kitchen and living room, solves the perspective of the crazy angles of reality like a jigsaw puzzle, all of it suffused with warm, morning light. The artist presents the her life and her life’s work without irony, giving the work an earnest power rare in these post-modern times.

A McEneaney exhibit at the ICA is a big deal, a Philadelphia artist paid the kind of respect usually reserved for international players. The opening of the show attracted a mob of local artists and admirers. The place was packed even beyond the usual opening-night standards, making it impossible to see the work, and nearly impossible to find the artist.

The ramp project, Aleksandra Mir’s rethinking of a map of Tokyo, with original street names, tried to make the best of a thorny space. A friend who’s been to Tokyo liked it, but I sort of felt like it was “Lost in Translation,” with still another layer of Western incomprehension. The demand for a grid and the Roman alphabet and English words seemed unreasonable to me. The flags denoting the locations of McDonald’s was the equivalent of erecting the American flag on the moon or the Union Jack at the Poles–cultural imperialism, I thought, and more globalization than I’m ready for.

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