The charged paintings of Nobuya Hitsuda.
My eyes are like telescopes1
Paintings record a given moment and last year’s exhibition ○△□ (pronounced Maru Sankaku Shikaku) by 櫃田伸也 Nobuya Hitsuda at KAYOKOYUKI records the nature of his return to painting. Picture the scene: the window to a gallery behind wall-covered creeper filled with image on top of image. Every painting looks drunk with the world flying by in parallax and bending like grass in the wind. They picture a place of folkloric tradition moving from a pre-industrial past to the frantic modern. The ground is drawn and redrawn in quick succession as a strip of green tears through 通り過ぎた風景 Scenes Passed by, 1993/2008, brush marks tear through open land where distant structures seem to stare at a tent being pitched in the wind. Blue tarpaulin is picked out amid the earth tones and 筏 (舟) a raft (ship), 2015, with its punctured hull is seen dragged ashore wedged somewhere between a rock (in blue) and a hard place, possibly the Tamagawa River to the west of Tokyo still home to many of the city’s homeless.
Hitsuda was born in Tokyo in 1941 and entered Tokyo University of the Arts to graduate in 1966. He did as many of others did: exhibited works in public with Shin Seisaku Kyokai (New Production Association) as part of their annual summer salon. The period was a relatively productive but Painting felt increasingly neutral. It struggled amid movements in America and Europe that wrestle for attention. A restlessness had followed Marcel Tapié who visited Japan in 1957 where the critic brought with him an imported sense of authority later referred to as Art Informel. Elsewhere, Anti-Art adopted the new consumer-driven shorthand of advertising that was unsure whether art existed at all, while Immateriality attacked the everyday labour of an artist with the artist removed altogether and, in the case of Yayoi Kusama and her Infinity Net series (1958~), described in terms of self-obliteration and a style of endless repetition.
Competing attitudes were enough to cause some painters to switch off. Hitsuda paused his own production soon after graduating, loosing interest in painters like Sigmar Polke who was born the same year and just as interested in image making. Hitsuda went to work for the Japanese public broadcaster NHK curious of how stages were painted with the image of stone and concrete. The outside world also penetrated the home as audiences began seeing the world like never before. The royal wedding in 1959 had been one of many ‘firsts’. It was the first live broadcast with the first outsider to be crowned Princess. Mass media reshaped tradition and was now shaping the public headspace as well. Hitsuda responded by switching back to painting with images that appeared to capture changes of their own. His frantic marks scratched away the surface as if fine tuning the brief glimpse of something seen in the corner of his eye. 四季山水 Landscape of the four seasons, 1980s-2023, wipes away the veneer of an old worktop with a thin layer of oil and acrylic. Bits of canvas, linen, craft paper, masking tape and sandpaper were added over over four decades making for a surface that appears almost over-exposed like camera film, stretched between his time in Aichi, moving there in 1975 to teach at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music (now Aichi Prefectural University of the Arts just outside Nagoya) and his eventual return to Tokyo in 2001. During this period Hitsuda helped ‘locate’ students in their own work. The image of each impassioned conversation now part of that old school worktop — a circular pool of blue, a triangle of sandpaper and a square of yellow taped to worktop veneer. ○△□
Either side are two pencil and crayon works on paper, Mountains, 2007, focusing on a something planetary moving through the sky along with the drawn and redrawn outline of structures which seem to move in tandem. Their unspecific geography also pull from Polke and his Magnetische Landschaft (Magnetic Landscape), 1982, with its own nameless range of mountains overlaid with a magnetic field diagram. The spirit of Polke seems to loom large at this point. Schwarzer Fleck (Eifel) (Black Stain [Eifel]), 1984, warns of the detail within Hitsuda’s pictorial 庭 Garden, 1996, a painting strained with uncertainty and invisible forces at play — a balustrade to one side that could lift a swimmer from an open-air pool and land them beside a tangle of freeze-framed overgrowth from each season. The exhibition “Maru Sankaku Shikaku” is a coded scenery of absence and activity with a beached ship missing its crew, a swimmer-less lido and collapsed tents abandoned.
The imagery overlaps the lightheartedness of the Buddhist painter Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) who pictured the enlightenment a country still cut off from the rest of the world with three interlinking shapes he simply titled ○△□, 1819~1828. Sengai was born to a farmer who sent the young child to a temple near Gifu. He arrived at Shofukuji Temple on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu much older, the first Zen temple in Japan ever constructed and home to the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. But Sengai rarely shared its teaching. He thought its pursuit of enlightenment was a paradox. Teaching involved reading hours of guttural monologue, deflecting the body blows of elder monks, and deciphering unsolvable riddles. He fled their relentless focus believing enlightenment could only be achieved if everything was refused, including the school. Rinzai with its Zen of pictorial salvation seemed even more absurd in the face of dead bodies left lying in the street as the Tenmei and Tenpo famines just 50 years apart caused misery throughout the country.2 Painting was a distraction. Its suffocating skill and mastery pushed Sengai to produce ‘lawless’ paintings — gaiga muhou — where every ounce of paint was removed in his bid to attain enlightenment.
Sengai’s style and morose sense of humour offers another way to view Hitsuda who skews the outline of the more recent depopulated rural Aichi and suburbs where urban influence is seen creeping in. Objects near the front frame a foggy middleground as objects in the distance lead a merry dance. This is not the scenery as printed by Hokusai (1760-1849) and his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. Nor does it recreate the ordered scenes of Piero della Francesca (1415-1492) an influence on Hokusai’s generation and whose treatise On the Perspective of Painting (De prospectiva pingendi) argued a revival of renaissance of art and science would project stability back into Europe decimated by the Black Death and bubonic plague a century before.
Hitsuda pushed students to project their own stable vision as artists of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. They were taught the value of self awareness and the peril of standing still. One student was a young Yoshitomo Nara, inspired by American punk rock who later left Japan for the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism. Nara was encouraged to pursue something personal as others had before him. Between 1970 and 1973 Maru Sankaku Shikaku was also the name of an itinerant Japanese psychedelic rock band that constantly toured Japan. They dressed in costumes with face-painted in shades of Neo-Expressionist Gothic horror. This was painting to escape the materialism that had gripped the country. The communal, collective force of society gave wave to the internal world of self exploration and Maru Sankaku Shikaku soon disbanded. The band’s ex-graphic design student turned guitarist Яeck (Kawashima Akiyoshi) left for Downtown New York in 1977 and returned with a new band named after a Television song. Friction were perfectly pitched for Tokyo just as Kraftwerk were spurred on by the din of industrial Düsseldorf. Friction was energised by sleepwalking musicians and artists labelled ‘no wave’ and drifting through New York as enigmatic “fence posts” and the real edges of their territory.3 Tokyo was overdue a language of its own, an abrasive confrontational sound also at odds with itself.
The curator Masahiko Haito described Hitsuda as “painting to escape painting” and the quiet of suburban Aichi that seemed to offer little inspiration. Seigai wrestled with the horror of poverty and famine as he escaped both his Buddhist teaching and his own being in the search of greater wisdom. Hitsuda’s own departure at first from painting and then from Tokyo and later his return to both coincides with a period of prosperity a period of personal wealth and personal fortune. But Hitsuda describes a complexity of feeling. Places stand still as others rise from the ground at alarming rate rebuilding the world around them. Works like 不確かな風景 Uncertain landscape, 1987, picture a cold war of progress and the past where one side appears sparse and the other flickers in transition.
What is it that about these paintings that reach beyond to picture or explain the unexplainable? They express the psychic physical experience of change as it happens. Many were made in the wilds of Aichi away from the action of Tokyo and speak of how Japan between 1975 and 1989 was awash with rampant wealth and excess, a ‘bubble’ period that eventually burst with dramatic effect. However removed they appear to be, as if watching events unfold from afar, paintings give little away as to what happens outside their frame. They could as easily be describing today — a series of competing forces with no real winner in sight. We’re left to watch as their drama unfolds on screen. A futility of force fields.
Nobuya Hitsuda, ○△□
October 28 - December 9, 2023
Koichi Kageyama, “What is it that you understand about Sengai Gibon’s ○△□?” https://artscape.jp/study/art-achive/10127048_1982.html [Accessed Jan 11, 2024]
As quoted in John Rockwell’s “The Odyssey of Two British Rockers”, The New York Times. Appears in Marc Masters, “NO!: The Origins of No Wave”, Pitchfork. https://pitchfork.com/features/article/6764-no-the-origins-of-no-wave/ [Accessed Jan 8, 2024]