Installation view of “Kazuo Shiraga” at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong, 2014. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery.

Kazuo Shiraga

Axel Vervoordt Gallery
Japan Hong Kong

Kazuo Shiraga (1924–2008) is an artist respected as a key figure of Japanese avant-garde art. With a career spanning six decades, his artistic philosophies and revolutionary practice has had a notable influence on many American and European artists, including Yves Klein, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell. Shiraga was one of the founding members of the Gutai Art Association, a Japanese avant-garde movement that was active in the 1950s and ’60s. There are aspects of the radical art movement that could be associated with the Action Painting of 1950s New York; however, the aesthetics of Gutai evolved independently as an outcome of postwar Japan.

One of Shiraga’s most notable works, a performance piece entitled Challenging Mud (1955), was a shining moment that served as a precursor to his action-paintings, which he later became known for. In the performance, Shiraga immersed himself in a pile of mud and used his body as a sculpting tool. Toying with the notion that action generates art, Challenging Mud was a deliberate attempt to rebel against the conventions of painting. Two years later, Shiraga would establish his revolutionary practice of painting with his feet, which subsequently brought him international acclaim shortly thereafter. In 1957, in a gallery in Osaka, Shiraga donned a red Pinocchio suit and suspended himself from the ceiling with a rope. Hovering in space, Shiraga swirled oil paint on a sheet of paper that was laid out on the floor and created marks using his feet. This was the second public performance by Gutai and the defining moment that led to Shiraga’s pursuit of action painting.

KAZUO SHIRAGA, Hachikono-0oji, 1984, oil on canvas, 130 × 162 cm. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong. 

For Shiraga’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, Axel Vervoordt Gallery showcased three carefully selected paintings, with one on each wall of its intimate space. Upon entering the gallery, to the right hung the largest monochromatic painting in the exhibition, Hachikono-Ooji  (1984). Comprised of black and grey lashings against a warm-colored canvas, Hachikono-Ooji stood out with its strong presence, especially being the only painting in the show with such a minimalist palette. However, one should not be fooled by its simplicity, as within the expanse of black lies many layers of different texture. Demanding contemplation, Hachikono-Ooji exudes a calm, mature energy that resonates with Shiraga’s artistic quest to instill his painting with shishitsu.

Shiraga fervently believed in the philosophical idea of shishitsu. A concept that was central to Shiraga’s practice, both in the making and final result of his paintings, shishitsu could be described as an ever-evolving part of one’s psyche. Found innately within us, shishitsu—according to Shiraga—is the energy that shapes one’s spirituality and physicality. Through the act of painting with his feet, and thus eliminating the brush and rebelling against his training as a classical Japanese painter, Shiraga believed he was connecting with his shishitsu.

KAZUO SHIRAGA, Composition T55, 1962, oil on canvas, 130 × 97 cm. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong.

The evolution of both Shiraga’s shishitsu and his technical practice was evident in the selection of paintings at Axel Vervoordt. Towards the end of the 1960s, Shiraga began to incorporate unconventional tools in his painting, such as a rod or a plate. Furthermore, in 1971, Shiraga began training at the Tendai-sect Buddhist temple Enryakuji on Mount Hiei in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture. During this time he ceased painting entirely, only resuming the practice after the disbanding of Gutai in 1972, following the death of its leader and main financial backer Jiro Yoshihara. The influence of Shiraga’s training as a monk in the 1960s may be what we see in his later works. Back at Axel Vervoordt, displayed along its back wall was the vibrant and active Composition T55 (1962), an embodiment of Shiraga’s earlier works. Here, the motion of paint strokes appear to have been delivered with more fierceness. The paint layers are thicker and more protrusive. The textures are glossier and denser. A palette of muddy red, brown and mustard, Composition T55 does not allow for a single moment of tranquil stillness. It shouts out with the immediacy and power of an action painting. The subsequent changes in Shiraga’s practice was evident when the work was viewed alongside Zuisouhen (1986)With a similar color palette, but with a more subdued and centered energy, Zuisouhen occupied the left and remaining wall of the gallery. Also displayed was a smaller painting, Youren (1991)—the two later works both echoed the evolving nature of Shiraga’s mentality.

KAZUO SHIRAGAZuisouhen, 1986, oil on canvas, 130.3 × 162 cm. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong.

Although a small show, Axel Vervoordt presented a quality display of Shiraga’s expansive career. In just several paintings one was able to immerse oneself in the unending energy imbued in Shiraga’s paintings and see the growth of an artist through his quest for total connection with his spiritual self.

“Kazuo Shiraga” at Axel Vervoordt Gallery was on view from August 28 to November 15, 2014.