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"Déforme amplifies the integrity of the visual attributes in the artwork.

Through the visual form, the déforme reveals the aesthetic preference of the cultural context..."

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"...Regardless of whether the culture is an entire nation or a small community, or is ancient or contemporary, the déforme embodies the inherent cultural essence of the image."
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Image and artist's statment reference sheet for curators:
A4 PDF / US Letter PDF

Artist's Statement


Déforme: In a Japanese discourse, the word déforme refers to visual representation in an exaggerated or simplified way so as to depict the essence of the subject. Therefore, a déformation is a visual representation, an image, that reflects the essential character of the subject, and sometimes, a caricature.

When I was in art school, aesthetics was one topic of study that presented challenges and limitations that I had not expected. I found that I had to look beyond the established scope of aesthetic scholarship and I had to ask myself what this meant in a Japanese context. I had to consider what the Japanese discourse of aesthetics would be.

It was not unexpected that Western academics overlooked an Asian perspective. However, the absence of that perspective in aesthetics felt more personal to me. It is evident that the Western study of aesthetics, as a branch of philosophy, did not evolve to include Japanese or other Asian cultural perspectives. As a student, I had no choice but to consider the “Japanese discourse” on my own. The question of a Japanese aesthetic discourse was not resolved, and the problem has stayed on my mind for quite some time. Along with the subject of art history, which I have explored in other projects, the quality of aesthetic and the study of aesthetics are complex subjects that intrigue me, and the question of inclusive perspectives seems to be a pertinent one today.

When we examine the aesthetic of a specific culture, this is an effective approach for evaluating the déforme of the visual images, irrespective of the media it is produced in. By using déforme, the artist can emphasize the aesthetic of the culture to which the image belongs. It is not a new process, and it can be observed in different cultures throughout history. The use of déforme can be seen in the aesthetic qualities of Egyptian and Greco-Roman art through to Disney characters in the West, and in the East from Chinese and Indian religious art, to Pokémon.

Déforme amplifies the integrity of the visual attributes in the artwork. Through the visual form, the déforme reveals the aesthetic preference of the cultural context. Regardless of whether the culture is an entire nation or a small community, or is ancient or contemporary, the déforme embodies the inherent cultural essence of the image.

Since I have worked with many ukiyo-e images in my artwork, the concept of déforme in the context of ukiyo-e is a particularly interesting subject to examine. For instance, a Japanese aesthetic may be commonly perceived in the ukiyo-e depictions of geisha, Mt. Fuji, and also Hokusai’s The Great Wave. The popularity of these images outside of Japan is due not only to the visual execution of the depictions, but also because of the perceived exoticness of the subject matter.

The ukiyo-e images and style of depiction are ultimately the result of several practical factors: the nature of reproducible media, the cost-effective basis of production, and the technological boundaries of the ukiyo-e process. At the time of their production, images that are now considered to be classic ukiyo-e prints were not fine artwork, but rather, were made for mass dissemination at relatively low cost. The aesthetic of ukiyo-e are at least partly attributable to the characteristics of limited technology and the economic basis of the consumer market.

I considered what could be similar to the ukiyo-e aesthetic in western art. Perhaps it may be a peculiar answer, but the illustrations on fashion sewing pattern envelopes came to my mind. These images are not necessarily an exact parallel for ukiyo-e, but surprisingly, the vintage illustrations of sewing patterns have qualities that correspond to the ukiyoe-e aesthetic somehow. Both ukiyo-e and pattern illustrations are fundamentally graphic works, were made in a duplication process, and employ déforme.

In a practical sense, a sewing pattern is a guide to physical construction and to appearance. The purpose of the pattern is to achieve the reproduction of a garment and the illustration conveys the essence of the desired outcome—it is an idealized representation. Like ukiyo-e, the aesthetic of the pattern illustration is correlated to its process of reproduction, mass dissemination, and economic considerations.

A comparison of these two forms of representation demonstrate contrasts between the Western and the Japanese déforme aesthetic. They show idealized examples of Western and Japanese physical appearance. Both the sewing pattern illustrations and the ukiyo-e images depict an exaggerated shape of the body and of the human face that reflects their cultural sources, and each also exhibits opposing ends of an aesthetic spectrum.

For example, the sewing pattern illustrations portray the human figure with long, slim limbs, a small waistline, and sometimes, bright eye colors. In contrast, ukiyo-e representations portray Japanese women with a focus on the face and hair arrangement, which is a reference to sexuality and status. In ukiyo-e representation, the hair is an important indication of femininity and is a display of the artist’s technical mastery. In ukiyo-e, this focus tends to result in representations of a proportionally larger face.

In the real world I do not see such a dramatic difference between Western and Japanese physical characteristics. However, each culture displays a distinct depiction of the body that is within their own aesthetic preferences. This observation reminds me of a diamond and pearl. The diamond, or a gem stone, is brilliant—sometimes perhaps like a colored eye. It is typically worn in the west as a bright and conspicuous ornamentation. By contrast, the pearl, for Japanese, is appreciated for the perfection of its surface, shape, and texture. When worn, the pearl’s value is in its understated complement to smooth, radiant skin, rather than as an obvious ornamentation.

My conviction is that the resulting aesthetic is based upon the community’s distinctive physical characteristics and the natural environment to which the culture belongs. It might be possible to say that western style ornamentation corresponds to an ideal version of western physical appearance, with an emphasis on glamour and embellishment, whereas the preference for the pearl coincides with the ideal of Japanese physical appearance. Regardless, the use of déforme offers a key to understanding visual aesthetics in a cultural and historical context.

These observations suggest that there is a need for a higher level of cultural inclusivity in the study of aesthetics and art history. Although aesthetics and art history evolved in distinctive tracks, there is a common path as well. Each area is primarily concerned with subjects that are contained within the cultural discourse of the Western world, and both fields have contributed to other areas of academic scholarship and the development of the humanities. Japanese and other non-western cultures have also benefited from these areas of study. However, in a 21st century context, it is important to extend inclusivity to a broader cultural context, as a furtherance of academic scholarship and human progress.

Koya Abe, 2017

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Topology of Art Chapter 8 series, Aesthetic(s), image and wrtitings are copyright Koya Abe 2014 – 2017. All rights are reserved

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