Kenjirō Okazaki’s Landscapes of Time and Space
By: Travis Diehl and Kenjirō Okazaki
Travis Diehl: In your series Topica Pictus [2020–ongoing], each small, abstract painting is complemented by a short essay. I’m curious how you see that relationship.
Kenjirō Okazaki: As soon as I start painting, I immediately recall many things. I don’t have a subject in mind before painting. Instead, the painting process is an exercise in finding a specific topic or theme. Each work must have its own unique character. Each character cannot be reduced to the artist’s identical style. For example, in 急き立てられた土地所有 [Corn and Summer Wheat, 2020] I started to use this colour and its tonality immediately recalled Thomas Hart Benton’s painting Corn and Winter Wheat (1948). Then it reminded me of the debate in Japan about whether landscapes could have regional characteristics. This is how I start to think and write simultaneously while painting.
TD: I don’t know how much this is my projection, but the compositions of some of your abstract pictures resemble works by other artists: 巨大な雨粒が石切場を襲う [Dream of Albrecht Dürer / A huge rain drop raids the quarry, 2020], for example, has echoes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel [c.1563].
KO: Yes, they both have that same diagonal. For me, I saw not only that painting, but I also found similarities to works by Paul Cézanne, such as Mont Saint-Victoire [1904–06]; quarries were a popular subject for Dürer. Looking at Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, I see that it’s not a tower: it’s an existing mountain that has been built upon – it is a stone quarry.
TD: So, your composition reflects all of these mountains.
KO: Yes, because they are half art and half nature.
TD: It also seems like the edges of the colours and strokes are reflected in the notches or recessions of your frames.
KO: The frame is the mechanism that guides the movement from the painting towards the outside, and from the outside into the world of the painting. It’s connected to architecture. This function is the most important thing: to enable a breeze to pass through, but to provide shelter from the rain. Of course, the function of my frame also draws on the history of the shaped canvas, which emphasized the painting as an object rather than the autonomy of painting space. The frame is made after the painting is finished, but I find that, as I am making my paintings, I’ve already predicted what form the frame will take. Writing, painting, framing (architecture) this multitasking is important to me, always, even if I don’t know how everything connects. It’s like the three-body problem that the 19th-century French mathematician Henri Poincaré proposed: when there are three or more stars with enough mass to have a gravitational effect on each other, the motion of these stars becomes almost incalculable and unpredictable. Whenever I try to write or draw something, for instance, I feel anxious because I am not sure if I can actually do it well. On the other hand, this uncertain feeling gives me a sense of purpose. It is similar to going to an unknown place, which means joining the ranks of our ancestors who surely would have recognized it. I guess you could say that, through creation, we all belong to this place beyond the present moment in which we are positioned.
TD: Is there a sense of humour to the paintings?
KO: I hope so. It’s a difficult thing to answer, but you have to have a little bit of humour.
TD: A lot of people would disagree.
KO: To move beyond daily life, the pandemic, everything – to see objectively outside of the world – requires a degree of humour. One joke I like is: The soon-to-be-executed man’s stomach growls. He smiles, “I’ve got news! In half an hour, I’ll be eating ice cream in heaven.”
TD: To me, your juxtaposition of small, quick paintings with such grandiose art history is also that kind of joke.
KO: Works of contemporary art are supposed to be located in the present. It’s this shared present that was lost during the pandemic. Shared time is a goal of distribution, and the integration of people’s consciousness, interests and desires in the same time and space was the premise of the modern state.
TD: Is ease of distribution another reason for the small scale of your paintings?
KO: Rather, it should be thought of as a device that can delay time. When the tableau or the scroll painting was invented, it was first of all movable. You didn’t have to look at it in an exhibition, a time shared with many people. Space and time were isolated and could be carried around. Just as a book does, each time you unfold a work of art, its unique time grows. If art has the power to be critical of reality, it is because it is able to hold a time and space that is outside of the shared and rather politically forced present. In fact, even during a pandemic, it is still possible to communicate through such means, without using Zoom.