Chiyusei Seibokukan (one of the Shuihuzhuan series, or Warriors), 1961, oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm
For the inaugural exhibition of the new space at Kanaal, Axel Vervoordt Gallery will open with a retrospective exhibition of Kazuo Shiraga’s paintings from the 1960s to the end of the 1990s.
In recent years, Axel Vervoordt’s attention has brought Kazuo Shiraga and his work greater acclaim, and taken both to a more profound place. According to Vervoordt, while Shiraga’s work conveys the essence of Japanese culture, it centers on bold expressions unlike anything in Japanese art until that point. And though the artist used Western materials, he made work that was inconceivable to Western people, giving rise to a unique spirituality and expressivity.
Making a painting requires material (paint), a support medium, method (tool), and technique. In art school, Kazuo Shiraga studied nihon-ga, a traditional style of Japanese painting that makes use of pulverised mineral pigments and glue. After graduation, however, Shiraga came to dislike the rough texture of these materials and opted instead for the slippery texture of oil paint. He began expressing this texture with his fingertips before adopting increasingly wild actions and eventually using his feet to paint.
This action (physical experience) seemed to create a link between Shiraga’s body and spirit. He adopted this approach in about 1954, prior to joining the Gutai Art Association. At the time (and perhaps even today), this type of painting struck people as very strange. Yet, Jiro Yoshihara, Michel Tapié, and the Informel artists praised Shiraga’s paintings for their fresh vitality. Shiraga’s paintings seemed to express what they had been searching for: the fusion of a spiritual act with the physical body. In the pamphlet for Shiraga’s 1962 solo exhibition at the Gutai Pinacotheca, Yoshihara wrote, “In all of history, there is no match” for Shiraga’s paintings. He also heralded the artist’s use of his feet to create deep, organic lines and professed total confidence in Shiraga, “And I can only imagine myself continuing to bet on him.”
Shiraga’s paintings constantly wander back and forth between the conscious and unconscious. Rather than a system or logical explanation, they are primarily based on the artist’s intuitive state of mind. Perhaps the experience of spiritual enlightenment allowed him to consciously control the unconscious. Shiraga developed an interest in Esoteric Buddhism (the Tendai sect) as a means of coming to terms with this and took vows as a priest at Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei.
In an interview (published in Futokoro sanpo, Mainichi Shimbun Hanshin Branch Office, 1994), he said, “When you reach a state of selflessness, you don’t sense time pass as you’re painting. Before you even know it, the painting is done. I have the sense that the mental state you attain in Esoteric Buddhist training is identical to the one you attain when you paint a picture.”
Shiraga would begin working by chanting a sutra to the deity Fudo Myo-o, and then move his feet freely across the canvas, seemingly severing all connections to the rope and his conscious mind. Based solely on this process, we’re left with the strong impression that Shiraga was aiming for a state of nothingness, but this is merely an arbitrary conclusion inspired by his works. I always believed that he was actually thinking about some sort of change in consciousness. Even when I looked at his work, I detected his indescribable will. When I spoke with Shiraga about this in the year 2000, he said, “I’m more and more attracted and interested in the real world.” In other words, Shiraga had an image in mind before he started to make a painting and immersed himself in the process as if he was praying. This explains why Shiraga himself was a bit bewildered by the deeply satisfying results. He said that the images he called up when he worked, akin to summoning up evil thoughts, were erased through the act of painting, leaving him with a deep sense of relief. We cannot help but sense Shiraga’s humanity in this conscious state, far removed from the unconscious.
Shiraga’s work underwent a change from the time he began painting with his feet in the 1950s to the end of his career. The shift from trying to paint unconsciously in the 1960s to embracing an image in the 1990s is particularly intriguing. In considering Shiraga’s paintings and physicality, his actions and life provide us with various hints that help us understand his work.
This text is written by Koichi Kawasaki, independent curator and Gutai scholar, on the occasion of this solo exhibition.
This exhibitition is organised in collaboration with Lévy Gorvy Gallery at the same time of their Kazuo Shiraga exhibition in London. In 2015, Lévy Gorvy and Axel Vervoordt Gallery co-published the monograph KAZUO SHIRAGA.
Axel Vervoordt Gallery
Kanaal - Stokerijstraat 19