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Should Japanese-style painting represent the nation as a whole?

Special to The Japan Times
Mise Natsunosuke has been drawn into the fold of neo-nihonga (new Japanese-style painting) practitioners, a pigeon-hole he happily investigates but is also troubled by. In earlier exhibitions he has shown complicity with both the destruction and the resurrection of nihonga, which he pursues in his current show at the Kyoto City University of Arts Gallery. It is the essentialism of the Japanese people and the nation as a whole that the label of nihonga implies, and being a representative of such troubles him. To mitigate this, he is pushing his practice from the national to the local.

As Mise puts it, his chain of thought is as follows: begin at Nara, his place of birth; which is part of the Kansai region in Japan; which is a country in Asia; a continent in the world; a planet in the universe; part of eternity. Of his own identity he offers a macro-to-micro interpretation: "human, male, teacher, paints pictures, is protein." While some define themselves and others as "nihonga" artists or "Japanese," Mise instead asks, "Who am I?" To answer that, at least provisionally, Mise paints, and the results have posited him as one of the finer painters of his generation.

God, which with "My God" (2010) Mise starts his show, is a theme occasionally taken up in nihonga in variant forms, notably by Yokoyama Taikan in "Lost Child" (1902), which pictured Buddha, Christ, Confucius and Lao-tzu protecting a child, bringing together divergent religions for a seeming single purpose. Mise's take, however, is far more Catholic and explosive. His imagery hurtles up and out of the canvas, and scanning the surface's often viscous layers of paint reveals even more. Doll-like faces, the Indian elephant god, Tutankhamen, a Shinto tori (gate) erected on a hillside and a happy Buddha with his arms outstretched, surge and reach out from the coagulation.

The piece from which the exhibition takes its title, "Trying to Change This Moment into Eternity" (2010), is overwhelming in size: 20 meters of hinged panels in length, it stands just shy of 3 meters high. Filled with luxurious detail crammed into every centimeter, it is a tortuously convoluted expanse of a painting. "Unusual Scene" (2003-11) is of a similar type: At 1.54 meters tall, its panels stretch across the room and end with uneven edges. It is a painting to walk by slowly, taking in the detail.

These massive works appropriate all manner of media and visual reference: from matte finishes in ink to reflective metallic leaf and Edo Period Rimpa painting stylizations to collaged topographical maps. There are bits of texts lurking beneath layers of paint, and various images, including a shadowy Loch Ness monster, airplanes, Hokusai's "Great Wave" and even a UFO.

This last reference points to Mise's work often being autobiographical, and he claims to have seen a UFO as a boy. As a viewer, you experience where the artist has been ― you follow him to his childhood memories, go abroad to Italy (with images of blood oranges and a little Leaning Tower of Pisa) or stay local in Tohoku.

That final destination is Mise's present residence and it has inspired him to step back from the nation-state definition of nihonga, and consider being a countryside painter. The recent question he has been asking himself, though, is whether Tohoku-style painting (Tohoku-ga) is in fact possible? Arguably it is, but it may be doomed to provincialism and thus irresolvable problems.

In addressing this question, Mise's series of works juxtapose paintings with short texts that enumerate characteristics of the region: You can feel the mountains, sense the melancholia of vast nature and note the music of the city lights seen on a winter night. He adds other imagery, such as Yamagata Prefecture's fuuki beans, women lounging on rocks, a reference to the hot pools of the Tohoku region and a metropolis being ravaged by a green mass into which tanks and fighter planes fire missiles.

Mise sees an analogy between his relation to nihonga and the evolution of the Japanese language (Nihongo). Just as spoken Japanese during the Edo Period (1603-1868) is different to that of today, so is his nihonga different to that of the past. His shift to Tohoku-ga, then, would be a shift from standard Japanese to a regional dialect.

An unresolved issue here is that while a person can be a native speaker of a language, it is much more difficult to claim a person to be native in an art genre. Particularly when you consider that most contemporary nihonga practitioners do not start using the art form's cherished and centrally important mineral pigments until art university.