Installation view of “QU4RTETS Exhibition: Paintings by Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman.” Courtesy Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery, Hong Kong.

Paintings by Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman

Qu4rtets Exhibition

Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery
Hong Kong

“Qu4rtets” is a multi-genre project inspired by TS Eliot’s poem Four Quartets (1945). A collaborative response to the poem’s message on time, eternity and mortality, the project comprises an exhibition of paintings by artists Bruce Herman and Makoto Fujimura, as well as a concert featuring musical compositions by Christopher Theofanidis. Currently on a global tour, “Qu4rtets” had its Asia debut last month in Hong Kong, as part of the three-week-long art festival “The Still Point,” whose title is itself a reference to Eliot’s poem.

“Qu4rtets” offers a comprehensive art package for the audience, with complementary artists talks, recitals and lectures, among others. During a preview discussion of “The Still Point,” which took place on the all-too-significant night of September 11, the artists of “Qu4rtets” elaborated on the project, as well as their personal attachments and motives behind it. One focus was Eliot’s eponymous poem, which is centered on humanity’s frustration in the face of an insurmountable obstacle—an experience that the poet encountered firsthand during the Blitz, the period of sustained strategic bombing of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany during World War II. Accordingly, both Herman and Fujimura shared how they have experienced their own “ground zeros”: Fujimura was directly afflicted by the September 11 attacks, during which he was living in a flat in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood; and Herman had gone through a personal crisis where he had lost his studio in a fire. The talk also stressed that Fujimura, Herman and Theofanidis insisted on collaborating with each other, in order to find an artistic expression of hope and response. The artists shared delightful episodes in which the composer had visited the painters’ studios to find inspiration, and Fujimura and Herman had listened to Theofanidis’ composition as they worked on their individual canvases. 

MAKOTO FUJIMURAQU4RTETS II, 2012, mineral pigments and gold on belgian linen, 127 × 203 cm. Courtesy Fujimura Institute, New York. 

At Fujimura and Herman’s exhibition, held in the circular main hall of the historic Fung Ping Shan building at Hong Kong University’s Museum and Art Gallery, eight paintings run along curving walls like a frieze. It is a thoroughly accommodating and commanding sight presented unto the visitor. The sense of harmony and collaboration is evident in the presentation, in which Herman’s vertical, representative and illuminating paintings alternate with Fujimura’s horizontal, abstract and staid works.

Herman’s four paintings, also titled Quartets (2012–13), are replete with recognizable symbols. They each depict one of four seasons—through an image of a tree and a human figure in various stages of life—which are rendered in grids of gold and silver paint. The ambivalent nature of time, which as a unit is both a useful measure and an artificial scope of our natural being, is best represented in the “winter” painting, which features a contemplative, elderly man.

The male figure in Herman’s painting—who, interestingly enough, is modeled after Fujimura’s father—stands at odds within the canvas’s grid. The viewer cannot discern whether he is standing in front of the grid or stepping into it, and whether he is underneath the looming tree or positioned before it. The painting seems to reference the enigma of “the still point,” mentioned in Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” which is also the inspiration behind the title of the exhibition’s hosting festival: 

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement…”

– “Quartet No. 1: Burnt Norton, II; Four Quartets (1945)”

MAKOTO FUJIMURAQU4RTETS III, 2012, mineral pigments and gold on belgian linen, 127 × 203 cm. Courtesy Fujimura Institute, New York. 

With Fujimura’s four paintings, Qu4rtets I–IV (2012), more patience is required to take them in. His shaded canvases, gradating from gray to black, are not only visual foils to Herman’s paintings, but are also phenomenological works. Fujimura explains that the essence of his paintings lies in the viewer’s active investigation of the works—seeing through and discovering the pulverized pigments scattered within the layers of thick paint. The phenomenology here seems to be that the viewer, through the visual gratification of finding the aforementioned pigments, is reminded to “keep calm and persevere.”

More intriguing is Fujimura’s method of production, which reflects messages of temporality similar to that of Herman’s works. The first canvas on view, while brightest in color, appears the heaviest in texture, while the last canvas is the darkest in tone and least thick. Another kind of “circulation” was executed on the paintings, as Fujimura applied pulverized pigments on one canvas while it was being placed on top of another. (The golden pigments that make up a grid in the third canvas are seen sprinkled along the fringes of the second). Through his works Fujimura seems to portray, in a painterly manner, “a return to the beginning”—a concept that Eliot explores in his “Four Quartets”: 

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

– “Quartet No. 4: Little Gidding, V; Four Quartets” (1945) 

In many ways the ambitious quality of the “Qu4rtets” exhibition is stimulating. Not only do its paintings deliver a dense philosophical message, they themselves are also meaningful creations of art. They are reminiscent of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (1902), designed as an homage to the musical genius of Beethoven, who himself had appropriated German poet Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy (1785) for his Ninth Symphony (1824). Indeed, the spirit of artistic proliferation and celebration is what best characterized “The Still Point,” which saw the cross-pollination of Hong Kong artists across various mediums of art. 

Qu4rtets” is on display at University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong until October 26, 2014.