February 9th, 2005


Tam Ochiai

When I made a record with Emi Necozawa back in 2001, I chose the name Mashroom Haircat for the project. Later we shortened the group name to Mashcat and used 'Mashroom Haircat' as the title of our mini-album on Japanese label Quattro. The name was perfect, for several reasons. Firstly, I'd always found cute the Japanese tendency to mix up Us and As, making 'my tummy' the much sweeter 'my tammy'. Secondly, Emi had been famous in the 90s for her hair, a big frizzy afro, but had since got it 'cat'. The lead track for the mini-album was therefore an electro-baroque rocker called 'I Cat My Hair'. Thirdly, the neko part of Necozawa means 'cat' in Japanese, and Emi is cat-crazy. And finally, because I wanted to make a tribute to one of my favourite painters, Tam Ochiai.

When I started visiting New York regularly in the late 90s, Tam's cramped apartment on Suffolk Street (he'd once shared the place with Takako Minekawa) was one of the places I felt most at home. I remember doing some magazine interview there with Tam and his friend Elizabeth Peyton. Tam showed often at Team Gallery up on West 26th Street, and it was there, sometime in 2000, that I must've seen paintings of his with titles like Simone, can you cat my hair?: blue cafe and Simon's Confession and Sir Edmund's mass: she can't cat hair: u.f.o no school today and marcel: do you need a hair cat:tranceparent cat (james joyce). I was a big fan of Takako Minekawa at the time, and it was easy to look at the delicately quirky girls in these paintings with one of Takako's childish, experimental songs playing in your head... 'Fantastic Cat', perhaps.

Tam, a shy, slim, attractively feline man one pictures dressed permanently in Agnes B, adores women. You almost feel he wants to be the frail girls he paints. "Clearly obsessed by fashion, filmmaking (particularly the French New Wave of the 60s) and music," says his gallery blurb, Tam's "fascination is curiously guileless... Inside all the flourishes that comprise pop culture at its most baroque, Ochiai taps into a minimal softness that invests his work with a strangely beautiful aura. The over 100 small white paintings on view at the Team Gallery are like fragile, intimate diaries of his obsessions featuring a roster of waiflike creatures..."

In its tenderness, its lightness and femininity, its complete lack of conflict and cynicism, Tam's work is also, it seems to me, terribly Japanese, or rather a perfect summation of a certain 90s Tokyo girl culture; he seems to share the taste of those tender-minded girls who read Olive, shopped in Daikanyama and hung Godard posters on their walls. So I was a bit shocked to read the following terribly wrongheaded comment in a Miami Herald review of a Japanese painting show including some of Tam's canvasses:

"Tam Ochai's wispy painted portraits of anemic girls in vintage fashions, their bodies and hairdos always threatening to dissolve into a glib knock-off of American Abstract Expressionism, seem to critique a culture in which so many Japanese women remain ornamental second-class citizens, more often protected than empowered."

There's just so much wrong with that, but it's also terribly revealing of the differences between the US and Japan. Firstly, and factually, the critic spells Tam's name wrong. Secondly, American AbEx is a terribly inappropriate comparison for Tam's work. It really plays no part. If it did, Tam would undoubtedly be a lot more hammy and macho than he is (think De Kooning's 'Woman' series). Next, Tam is absolutely not critiquing "a culture in which so many Japanese women remain ornamental second-class citizens, more often protected than empowered". He just likes wispy girls. He likes their delicacy and cuteness. He wants to be one. He adores them. Finally, to say that Japanese women are 'ornamental second-class citizens' is a gross and stupid racial stereotype.

If we delve into the pre-suppositions behind this judgement, it could even look worse. Japanese artists are making a poor copy of American styles, apparently. Their society is so backward that they must necessarily be critiquing it. Japanese women have no power and exist as mere 'ornaments'. People should be powerful rather than ornamental, in general. (But give me the life of a garden gnome over the life of Condoleezza Rice any day!) To portray a woman, for this critic, is to portray a problem, and to portray a problem is to critique a social malaise.

I was sitting in the refectory of the Future University yesterday, eating lunch, and some girls were combing each other's hair over by the window. It was such a friendly, gentle and tender scene, so girly. It was an image of 'the good'; of tenderness, togetherness, lightness, happiness. I was envious. I'm sure Tam would have been too.