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Secular Mystic: M’onma Returns to New York

Cavin-Morris Gallery was founded by a couple, Shari Cavin and Randall Morris, around 1980. The project unites their differences. “We have places where we diverge,” Cavin tells me as we chat in a sunlit private room behind the Chelsea gallery. Morris admits that what sparks his interest is the archaeological and anthropological aspects of an object, whereas Cavin is “more into the aesthetics.” “She has a better eye than I do,” he says.

M'onma, "Untilted," Colored Pencil on Paper, 22.4" x 17.7", 2006. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

M’onma, “Untilted,” Colored Pencil on Paper, 22.4″ x 17.7″, 2006. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

On shelves that line two of the walls are objects ranging from birdhouses to ritual masks. Cavin remembers that one of their first fights as a couple was over a Haitian wax skull. Morris was deeply interested in it, whereas Cavin could not stand it. To her, “It was a nasty piece of wax.” Despite, or perhaps thanks to their different sensibilities, Cavin and Morris have kept things interesting: in recent years, the gallery has shown Berber rugs from Morocco, Japanese pottery, and Kevin Sampson’s fantastical ship models, alongside more conventional media like drawing and painting. The only criterion for admission is that a work has “intention and meaning,” or, as Morris explains, that it was not originally meant for the art market. “If we don’t believe in it, it’s not on our walls,” Cavin states.

M'onma, "Untilted," Colored Pencil on Paper, 27.6" x 17.6", 2004. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery

M’onma, “Untilted,” Colored Pencil on Paper, 27.6″ x 17.6″, 2004. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery

So which of the two, Cavin or Morris, chose M’onma, the Japanese artist who draws in a state of trance, and whose solo show opened on May 19? “We both did,” they unanimously agree. Cavin tries to explain what they loved about his work: “It is beautiful, it is dense, it is not an easy, immediate read, it’s subtle, and it has incredible mystery to it,” Morris jumps in: “The vision is authentic.” “Yes, the vision is totally authentic,” she concurs. When they talk about M’onma, Cavin and Morris are completing each other’s sentences.

M’onma was virtually unknown both in the United States and in Japan until the ceramics artist Akiko Tanaka, a friend of M’onma, introduced him to the gallery. Works by M’onma first showed up at Cavin-Morris in 2012. They held a solo exhibition for him, which sold out, in 2014; the current show is his second solo. To Cavin and Morris, M’onma was an instant star. He is “one of the two or three most important artists we’ve ever worked with or found,” Morris says. “If he’d been found the same time as [Martin] Ramirez, he’d be in the same place. He’s that important.”

M'onma, "Untitled," Pastel on Paper, 13.8" x 18.9", 2005. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

M’onma, “Untitled,” Pastel on Paper, 13.8″ x 18.9″, 2005. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

Ramirez, whose drawings recently appeared on USPS postal stamps, is the one outsider artist who has received the most public acclaim in this country, so Morris’ pronouncement is no small matter. But not even stopping there, Morris adds, “He’s a master.” M’onma received no recognition for many decades, but after his work appeared at Cavin-Morris, it has been collected by the ubiquitous Takashi Murakami, according to Cavin. The stars surely are aligned in M’onma’s favor.

M’onma the Man Behind the Art

So who is M’onma? In spite of growing recognition, the artist remains a mystery. The only information on him can be obtained from Cavin-Morris (except, perhaps, if one speaks Japanese). M’onma’s story centers around a visionary experience that he had decades ago. After struggling for a long time to make art, M’onma was visited by an “entity” that manifested itself as golden light. Morris explains M’onma’s experience as a kind of spiritual trance. The “entity” guided M’onma’s hand. These days, the trance returns whenever M’onma draws. According to Cavin, M’onma “doesn’t control it, but he knows to allow it.” The “entity” even selects M’onma’s medium, telling him which pencils to use. According to Cavin, M’onma himself “doesn’t know what it means”: he only conveys his experiences on paper.

M’onma has not talked about his art and his working process directly to the press. He is “very private,” Cavin and Morris told me. I briefly met M’onma at the exhibition’s opening on May 19. He was a quiet presence at the show, and not immediately noticeable. A gallery assistant discreetly informed me that M’onma is the slight man in a seersucker suit. He was standing in a corner, not actively interacting with visitors. Our ability to have a conversation was limited by the language barrier. He shared with me that he loves New York because one can be an artist here, whereas he feels that artists are not appreciated in Japan.

His desire to move to New York surprised me: the idea I had formed of M’onma was of a spiritual recluse who lives close to nature. Morris’ text accompanying the show had stated that, after M’onma received his vision, he “went into the countryside, often in the mountains of Hokkaido, and sometimes to temples where he could draw in solitude.” But now, M’onma told me, he lives in Tokyo full-time. After the brief exchange about Tokyo and New York, our conversation dissipated; he apologized about his limited English, and disengaged. In spite of his humility and kindness, M’onma remained enigmatic. Perhaps the idea of a quasi-religious trance is the closest we can get to understanding his work.

M'onma, "Untitled," Colored Pencil and Pastel on Paper, 22.1" x 29.8", 2006. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

M’onma, “Untitled,” Colored Pencil and Pastel on Paper, 22.1″ x 29.8″, 2006. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

Some drawings in the show, like a pencil and pastel one from 2006, directly channel the experience of golden light during M’onma’s visions. In this piece, a thin male figure marked with a cross is bathed in a stream light, as a dark silhouette looms over him. The rest of the image, filled with figures or disjointed limbs, remains in shadow. Other pieces are not so macabre, but rather show the relationship of human beings with plants, the earth, and the sky. In a graphite drawing of 2002, a female body rises out of the earth and disappears in clouds. Human legs morph into claws. The claws are pierced by plant thorns, which in turn grow out of a gigantic breast protruding from the ground. In this warped vision, all beings are connected, if painfully so.

Similarly, in a red pencil drawing of 2005, a human torso is submerged below the earth, and thorny rose plants grow out of its shoulders. In two of the fifteen images, we see M’onma’s signature character—a menacing, grinning clown painted in garish green, red, orange, and blue. Morris believes he is inspired by Japanese theatrical masks, which portray exaggerated emotions. For Cavin, the drawings are related to Shinto: a religion that believes nature is infused with spirits. Each image creates a particular mood, and is charged with suffering, pleasure, and humor.

The ecstatic and apocalyptic visions staged in M’onma’s drawings escape rational explanation. As Cavin tells me, “Hopefully, there is always a mystery and an enigma to an artist’s work. Otherwise, why do we keep looking?”

M'onma, "Untitled," Colored Pencil on Paper, 13.2" x 20.8", 2004. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

M’onma, “Untitled,” Colored Pencil on Paper, 13.2″ x 20.8″, 2004. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.