Installation view of Tetsuo Mizù’s solo exhibition at Whitestone Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy Whitestone Gallery. 

Tetsuo Mizù

Whitestone Gallery
Hong Kong Japan

When discussing art depicting a maritime subject, romantic images of a large boat with billowing sails, breaking through white-capped waves and being battered by the ocean breeze, may cross one’s mind. Japanese artist Tetsuo Mizù, in his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong at Whitestone Gallery, presents a welcomed deviation from more traditional depictions of the subject with paintings that focus on the storied practice of international maritime flags. By painting artistic interpretations of images used in an official systematic code, Mizù has created artworks that are concretely representational, in that they can be read and thus retain their original coded meaning, yet are also whimsically abstract geometric compositions.

Maritime flags are used internationally by seafarers to convey messages amongst ships, with each flag used to signal different letters of the English alphabet. The 72-year-old Mizù takes these flags and distorts them in such a way that the images transcend the flags original symbolism and function. If a viewer has a working knowledge of maritime flags or, as in my case, an index of their meanings, then Mizù’s geometric forms become more than visually pleasing shapes, as the painting actually spells out the title of the work.

Perhaps unwittingly, Whitestone Gallery’s main space is a perfect reflection of the nautical theme that is central to Mizù’s work. The gallery’s ceiling is comprised of white parallel slats running the length of the gallery, gently undulating up and down, reminiscent of ripples of small waves over calm seas. The serenity cast upon the space, however, is interrupted by Mizù’s brightly colored, geometric paintings. At first glance, the works take the form of conventional geometric paintings; however, upon closer inspection, the symbolism imbued within each of Mizù paintings is revealed—they are abstractions and combinations of maritime flags.

The aesthetics of each of Mizù’s paintings are specifically dictated by the titles. Some, as hinted by titles such as KIKI (1998), display interesting repetition and symmetry in both color and shape. The composition, divided horizontally, is symmetrical, albeit slightly misaligned. Read from left to right, a pair of yellow and blue rectangles (forming the letter “K” in maritime flags) followed by a yellow block marked with a black dot at its center, (forming the letter “I”) spell “KI." This pattern, when repeated on the bottom half, presents the moniker “KIKI."

TETSUO MIZÙ, KIKI, 1998, oil on canvas, 130 × 97 cm. Courtesy Whitestone Gallery, Hong Kong.
TETSUO MIZÙ, KIKI, 1998, oil on canvas, 130 × 97 cm. Courtesy Whitestone Gallery, Hong Kong.

Due to the deep connection between the title and the painting, some fundamental elements of the painting are based solely on its name. In SHARAKU (date unknown), for instance, the length of the title and range of letters used have resulted in one of the more colorful paintings in the show, with multiple different shapes and hues dancing across the canvas. Interestingly, Mizù counterbalances the vivid tones with a matte finish that leaves his works more subdued. Contrasting some of the busier compositions is A (2008), a work emblematic of Mizù’s more minimal paintings. As signaled by the title, consisting of one single letter, is compositionally very simple and does not veer too far from the original flag design that it represents.

TETSUO MIZÙ, A, 2008, oil on canvas, 13.9 × 17.9 cm. Courtesy Whitestone Gallery, Hong Kong. 

TETSUO MIZÙ, Ami, 1999, oil on canvas, 80.5 × 80.5 cm. Courtesy Whitestone Gallery, Hong Kong. 

The vibrancy of most works in the show draws attention to the singular, more muted canvas AMi (1999). The earth-tone color palette, lightened almost as though obscured by a thick fog, is combined with the unique diamond shape of the canvas. Contrasting with the relatively loud aesthetic of the surrounding pieces, AMi provides a visual relief.

Through his play with surface texture, forms and color, Mizù has adopted the representational system of maritime flags and created an abstract body of work that is both visually and mentally stimulating. For Mizù, to whom the flags are reminiscent of time spent playing games with his daughter, the paintings evoke joyful memories that also stimulate delight within his viewers.

“Tetsuo Mizù” is on view at Whitestone Gallery, Hong Kong, until July 31, 2016.