Takako Yamaguchi’s close involvement with the Pattern and Decoration movement of the late 1970s and early ’80s belies the political undercurrents that run through the two paintings presented in “Smoking Women” at Egan and Rosen. The works, which the Japanese-born, Los Angeles-based artist created between 1994 and 1995, each depict a woman holding a cigarette. Tendrils of smoke billow and spiral across the composition, and a tortoiseshell cat lounges near her feet. Both scenes are set over gleaming backdrops that Yamaguchi created by plastering golden-hued sheets of bronze leaf onto the canvases.
Among their notable distinguishing characteristics, the pieces embody an unusual combination of aesthetic influences from both the Western art historical canon—namely, Art Deco and subsects of late 19th-century European Secessionist movements, like Art Nouveau—and the Japanese traditions around folding screen and kimono design.
Considered in the context of the United States circa the mid-1990s, however, Yamaguchi’s chosen subject matter takes on additional layers of meaning. Amid the decade’s infamous culture wars—which seemed to mainly play out via performative crusades and clashes amongst elected officials on Capitol Hill—one conservative senator in particular, Jesse Helms, representing North Carolina, publicly denounced the National Endowment for the Arts for awarding grants to the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as a North Carolina museum that had administered an NEA grant supporting Andres Serrano’s infamous 1987 photograph Piss Christ.
The exhibition’s press release quotes Yamaguchi, who said that, in creating the dual “Smoking Women” works, she had “set out to make paintings only a tobacco state senator could love.” The ornate, seductive appeal of these two canvases would no doubt prove alluring to the likes of Helms and others like him. Ultimately, though, the pieces are so impactful as to entice a far broader audience. —Rachel Small
Takako Yamaguchi, Sofie and Muffin, 1995. Oil, acrylic, and bronze leaf on canvas, 52 x 52 inches. Courtesy of Egan and Rosen.