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Time for Makoto Fujimura

March 1, 2009
In the the late nineteenth century Meiji period, a small coterie of Japanese painters decided their contemporaries had endured enough Western influence. Armed with sumi (a Chinese ink made from soot, fishbone, and animal hide), and a complex pigment derived from pulverized semi-precious stones like malachite and azurite– the coarse, petrous materials their ancestors had relied on for generations– they sought to extricate their culture’s rich artistic heritage from the dominant sway of European aesthetic trends. This movement, led by Shimomura Kanzan, Yokoyama Taikan, and Hishida Shunso, is recognized now as the modern emergence of Nihonga, a derivate name for a technique practiced by Japanese masters for over a thousand years.

This newer generation of painters saw the preservation of Nihonga, with its unique combination of volatile, earth-hewn materials, as the key to sustaining the distinctive form of Japanese visual art. They continued to apply their mixtures to washi (Japanase paper)* or silk, instead of the canvases favored by Western artists. Yet in composing their works to be displayed in frames, they revolutionized the formats utilized by their forebears, who typically painted on scrolls and screens.**

Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese-American artist living in New York City, is one of today’s most innovative practitioners of Nihonga. Fujimura, who was born in Boston but later earned his MFA in Tokyo, utilizes the form’s traditional techniques and materials to create abstract expressionist compositions remarkable for their stunning contrasts of pattern and hue. The critic Gerard Haggerty has compared Fujimura’s paintings to the “rich and subtle coloration of a butterfly’s wing.”***

“Still Point – Evening” 2003
“Fire” 2006
“January Hour – Epiphany”
“Shalom” 2001

“Gladiolas Red” 2000

“Gladiolas Blue” 2000
“November Hour”

Ken Myers interviewed Fujimura shortly after the release of his book River Grace, which was published earlier this year. An excerpted form of that conversation is available on Audition, Mars Hill Audio’s free podcast.

“Like abstract expressionist painters from the mid-twentieth century, Fujimura is profoundly concerned with the action of creating his art and not just with the finished product,” says Myers. “And because of the materials he uses, which chemically and visually change over time, looking carefully at his paintings encourages an attentiveness to the meaning of time, and of the things in God’s creation that take time. Fujimura’s book River Grace reflects on how his art, his life, and his beliefs are as subtly and creatively intertwined as the materials he uses, which as he explained to me in [our] recent conversation, are as much about time as about space and color.”

Fujimura, in that conversation, explains his work this way:

“The process of time is a language for me. My work is process-oriented, so it’s going to be about the passage of time. The material itself, being organic, will begin to settle hopefully like a good bottle of wine and with time will become distilled on the surface of the painting. I’m using medieval materials, which means mineral pigments, pulverized precious minerals like malachite and azurite, as well as gold and silver and sumi ink on top of paper. They are done on a base mixture of hide, glue and water layered many times–often about fifty layers on a single painting. You’re literally trapping time in the process.

It will continue to morph over time. It takes about two years for the surface to settle. So if you use silver, that’s going to tarnish over time, so you calculate that in to how it’s going to look in forty or fifty years. You have Japanese paintings from the seventeenth century that use silver powder. It’s completely darkened now, but it’s absolutely one of the most beautiful things you’ll see because the artist has calculated that to be part of the piece.”

*Wikipedia, **Brittanica, ***Mars Hill Audio Journal, Audition #11

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