Contemporary Art Market: Japanese artists discover wave of enthusiasm in the West

A WAVE of enthusiasm for the work of Japanese contemporary artists has hit the western market and the art itself is absurdly cheap.

The artists whose work is making the most impact - like Kusama, who represented Japan at last year's Venice Biennale, or Toya and Funakoshi who were both shown in Venice in 1988 - have had to establish international reputations with almost no support back home. Japan is one of the few countries which treats contemporary art with greater contempt than Britain.

Yayoi Kusama, born in 1929, belongs to the generation of Warhol, Yves Klein and Beuys. She spent the 1960s in New York where her work won the respect of contemporaries like Donald Judd, Frank Stella and Joseph Cornell; the nude 'happenings' she organised on the New York streets regularly made headlines.

The Fuji TV Gallery sells her large, museum-quality paintings and soft sculptures for about 8m yen ( pounds 40,000); small paintings are available from pounds 1,000; while the average price for her prints - she makes etchings, silk screens and lithographs - is pounds 350.

According to Susumu Yammamoto of the gallery, Kusama is the best seller among his contemporary artists. Many museums are interested in her larger paintings while the cheap prints have a wide public appeal.

Kusama has lived in a Tokyo mental sanatorium since 1977 with a studio near by - she travelled to the Venice Biennale with her doctor. She has an obsessive originality and is a master of abstract patterning. Her vision, she says, directly reflects the clinical depersonalisation which she has suffered since childhood. Her erupting soft sculptures have become a signature tune; she covers ordinary objects like boats, tables and chairs with forests of soft, penis-shaped projections.

Shigeo Toya and Katsura Funakoshi, born in 1947 and 1951 respectively, work in wood and, like Kusama, pursue personalised interpretations of reality.

Toya is obsessed with destruction, with what might remain of the world after a devastating earthquake or nuclear explosion. His main effort over the last few years has gone into creating dead forests. Wooden pillars some 6ft high are gouged and carved with a chainsaw, painted and rubbed with ash; they suggest dead trees, almost fossil trees.

He makes his woods in groups of 30 which his dealer, the Satani Gallery in Tokyo, sells for around 18m yen ( pounds 90,000) a time; a single tree costs 1.5m yen ( pounds 7,500). Woods I, his first forest, which was shown in Venice, is now in the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany; Woods II is in the Hara Museum, Tokyo; and Woods III in the Queensland Museum, Australia. Toya is coming to Britain later this year to gouge trees in the Grizedale Forest in Cumbria.

Funakoshi had a show at the Annely Juda Gallery in London in 1988 and already has strong links with Britain - he is a friend of the abstract sculptor Anthony Caro whose portrait he has carved. He makes life-size wooden sculptures of ordinary 20th-century human beings, most often cut off at the waist, but occasionally legs and all. He paints them to make them lifelike and inserts marble eyes. In effect, he gives humans the air of fairground figures.

Funakoshi is represented by the Nishimura Gallery in Tokyo which specialises in showing British artists. It sells Funakoshi's bust-length sculptures for 7m yen ( pounds 35,000) a time and full-length figures for around 13m yen ( pounds 65,000).

(Photographs omitted)