Mokuma Kikuhata
“A Song for Spring”

September 26, 2015 – October 23, 2015
Gallery Hours :11:00 – 19:00
Gallery Closed:
Sunday, Monday, Public Holiday
Reception:September 26, 2015 18:00 – 20:00

A Song for Spring – The Ferocity and Lyricism of Mokuma Kikuhata

By Noi Sawaragi (Art Critic)

Upon encountering the works in this Tokyo exhibition, the viewers’ first reaction may be to think, “Is this the same Mokuma Kikuhata?” The traces of Slave Genealogy, the work he unveiled at the height of the 1960s anti-art movement, are still that strongly imprinted in the minds of a great many. That piece consisted of two large logs, reminiscent of cannons, that were propped in a violently haphazard manner on concrete blocks and strewn with countless five-yen coins. Further accentuated by four thick, extinguished candles, primitively colored straw-like ropes that seemed to bind the logs, and other decorative elements worn almost like a suit of armor, the piece better resembled an indigenous curse than a sculpture or installation.

In the same way, I would hesitate to call his subsequent series bearing the same title, consisting of works on walls, “paintings.” They are something far more enigmatic. One irregularly circular piece is set on wooden panel with a cashew finish. The lustrous red color of the work is such that it seems to be bleeding as you watch, while patches of white, strewn like sesame seeds, resemble ubiquitous maggots emerging from a cadaver to feast on its flesh. Even while the better-known Roulette paintings from the same period, whose goals are encoded in their round form, have grown far more comprehensible in their structure than his previous work and may even appear highly polished at first glance, we are still left with the question of why he chose a roulette wheel as his motif. The meaning is entirely unclear. The pieces are rendered on thick slabs of wood with layers of paint so thick that they could more appropriately be called paint jobs than artworks. There is a persistent air of menace that seems to destabilize the viewer’s senses and a dense air of enigmatic mysticism. Once viewed, they are never forgotten. It is understandable that this is still the sort of work instantly conjured by Kikuhata’s name.

There is another reason, however, that Kikuhata’s image as an artist is imbued to this day with the high impact found in the pieces described above. When his fellow flag-bearers in the anti-art movement were faced with the sudden loss of their most prominent stage, the Yomiuri Independent, many took their art to the streets or crossed over to the West, struggling to find a path for their future careers. By contrast and despite the fact that he, among all the artists, was perhaps most well positioned for success abroad, Kikuhata abdicated the existing opportunities at hand and returned to his hometown of Hakata, Fukuoka. Throughout the 1970s he devoted himself to the analysis and critical advocacy of certain series of war-time paintings, which had finally been returned to Japan, and the coal-mine paintings of a completely amateur artist named Sakubei Yamamoto. During that period, he of course continued with his own production, but it was only in 1983 that he truly returned to painting, unveiling a new series of large canvases in the solo exhibition Geocentrism at Minami Garou, his first solo show in Tokyo in nineteen years.

Since then, Kikuhata has slowly but surely built his mastery of the medium. After the Geocentrism series, which mixed surfaces of paint as black as dark matter with a texture of abstract symbols, he followed up with the series Moonlight in 1986, Moon Palace in 1988, Way to Sea, Sea: Warm Current, and Sea: Cold Current in 1990, and Chantey in 1993. In all of these, Kikuhata depicts the mercurial and merciless visage of the deep sea that is his familial roots, as well as the many faces of melancholy blue seen in the lonely evening twilight, even as it is lit by the constellations that are the sailor’s only source of trust. These faces of the night, which seemed to lie sleeping as the base of Kikuhat’s memory and were illuminated through painting, shift again in 1996 with the Heavenly River series, in which a red as deep as if the sky had been cracked open and bled clashes with black to form an extremely idiosyncratic frame.

Still, in all of the above examples, one could see an element of continuity. Each seemed to be dealing with the question of how to depict a space that is devoid of light. Logically, it is impossible to do such a thing. However, even in the absence of light, the world is still material. Both the sea and the earth erase their form at night and it is only through the faintest glow of the moon or a flare, which really could not be called light at all, and a fixated stare that one can make out another world, a villainous twin that lay hidden during the day. Following this line of thought, the seemingly experimental use of color that is at the forefront of the works described above was not really color at all. Rather, one could describe these works as exploring our consciousness of color by plunging us into the bottom of a well where color itself cannot penetrate, to see whether we can still perceive something resembling it.

Which brings us to A Song for Spring, the series that debuts this time at Kaikai Kiki Gallery. The sensory experience of these paintings is completely different from before. They seem to have grown from the series of large canvases which Kikuhata produced in 2007, Spring Breeze. As indicated by their titles, we have now left behind any connection to the night or darkness. What takes its place are ‘Spring,’ ‘the wind,’ and ‘song’. Spring is that uplifting time when the Winter, in which all color fades from the landscape, departs and the pleasant smell of flowers and grass wafts in the air, borne from afar by a buoyant wind and delivered to our nasal cavities as a song. Insects emerge from their caves and experience the joy of contact with the outside air (surely insects too must feel joy). The color of these sensations has reached Kikuhata’s canvas unaffected, without passing through any darkness, in all senses of the word. It does not float to the surface, as if revealed by a strand of light, but has rather seeped out from the earth and the air before coagulating in a single spot.

What an incredibly courageous work! After groveling through so many nights of darkness, who could have imagined that Kikuhata could produce pink, blue, lemon, and orange of this audacity, work that could, with a single misstep, slip downward into ‘fantasy’. I’m sure that for the artist there was some element of fear. In both the title, A Song for Spring, and the colors themselves, the viewer would not be entirely at fault if they were to mistake them for work in the taste of young girls.

Despite this, in both the endeavor and its danger, it is precisely that aspect that is important. It is in fact not unreasonable to think of pink, blue, lemon and orange as colors for girls. As they enter adolescence and its accompanying hypersensitivity, young girls will find their hearts drawn to more difficult colors. And yet, perhaps regrettably, they do not possess the ability to carry out that change on their own. They must devote themselves to and employ the colors at their disposal. If actually given the ability to select colors under their own power, we can be sure they would bring forth pinks that are not quite pink, blues that are not quite blue, lemons that are not quite lemon, and oranges that are not quite orange, colors that are complex and beyond words. To my eyes, these paintings show Kikuhata taking this precarious bet and entering his final years in a state of ever more youthful ferocity. Having reached the end of a seemingly infinite period of trial and error, he now creates a monument to the song that is finally present before him.

But why, then, a song? Having re-attained one of life’s Springs, so limited in number, is he now ready to give voice in joy? No, that is not it. I believe that Kikuhata is now arriving at a new ground where he can simultaneously confront the fearsome ferocity that enables him to close in upon the aesthesia of a young girl and further give materiality to those sensations in ways a young girl cannot, along with the cruel precision necessary to carry out such a task. In that case, when the spring breeze blows at last, when it carries its song to our ears, what lies ahead? It can only be the gale winds of a Spring tempest, a frightening storm that touches down as strong as a typhoon, builds into a blizzard, and can even claim lives.

Is this the new Slave Genealogy? No, it is not that either. It is that which is enshrined in the seemingly colorful wind and its song, the co-existence of true fear and lyricism that is itself the personification of the painter Mokuma Kikuhata.

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