Kazuo Shiraga

When Japanese Bodies Make Their Mark

by Liz on January 21, 2015

in Art & Design

1. 1961_Chijikusei Gotenrai

Kazuo Shiraga's Chijikusei Gotenrai
(1961)

If man came from mud, then Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga was the man who returned to its depths.

In 1955, using his half-naked body as his instrument, Shiraga dug into a pile of clay, constructing abstract, unruly shapes. This performance, later preserved as body sculptures, set the stage for his paintings, which he created with his feet, or sometimes by suspending his body from the ceiling.

1. Shiraga in his studio, 1960

Shiraga in his studio, 1960

The paintings will be on view at the Dominique Lévy Gallery in New York from Jan. 29 to Apr. 4, in an exhibit titled ‘Body and Matter.’

Alongside Shiraga’s moving body paintings, Satoru Hoshino’s finger ceramics will also be on display. For a refreshing change of pace, traces of the artists’ bodies, the source of labor, will occupy the space as much as the art itself.

A prominent member of the postwar Japanese art group Gutai, Shiraga (1924-2008) used his body toward what art historian John Rajchman describes as ‘social dis-identification.’ The act brought out the singular creativity of the artist, expressing individualism in its most raw, and therefore honest form.

It’s a beautiful concept. Shiraga, like his fellow artists, wanted his viewers to stir from their polite amnesia after war, surrender and occupation had transformed the landscape — and a new agenda socialized Japanese bodies for the nation’s next chapter. To that end he engaged in painting as an act that erupts violently from the artist’s body, guiding the gaze back to the power of flesh, blood, bone before it is labeled, packaged and categorized by outside forces.

But the question remains: even as Gutai as an art movement received recognition as an avant-garde event that challenged mass conformity, how much of Gutai was a result of similar movements in abstract expressionist circles in France or the United States? Did the movement correspond to a singular modernity, or did it branch out to new Japanese expressions?

There may be no definitive answer but perhaps one plausible explanation lies in Shiraga’s post-Gutai activities — which included a turn to Zen asceticism and his engagement in painting as a spiritual practice, where paint became emblematic of the artist’s ki, or spirit.

For more information on this upcoming exhibit, visit Dominique Lévy Gallery. (An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m., and a panel discussion with Koichi Kawasaki, Alexandra Munroe, Ming Tiampo, and Reiko Tomii, moderated by Professor Rajchman, is scheduled for Feb. 15.)

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