It’s been a few months since I got back working with paintings after exclusively working on sculptures and drawing for 20 years or so.
It’s exciting to see things, which I learned over the years, being released on the surface becoming layers of a narrative, a presence of its own.
Another painting I just finished a few days ago. The paintings are done on black mat boards, which I bought when I was in graduate school over 20 years ago. I bought a big box of them–a lot of 60 x 40 inch sheets–thinking that I was going to paint on them. But it took a while to get started. Although, the sense of time in studio is weird. I don’t know if its short or long. But I know that I couldn’t have painted this 20 years ago. I’ve seen so many things and I’ve changed so much. But I still go to the studio hoping that I see something special and sometimes I do.
Untitled Painting 002, 40″ x 30″, acrylic, charcoal, enamel and oil, 2014
This story really moved me. It happened in the 90s in Japan. The economic bubble of the 80s had burst and the corporate oriented restructuring and austerity measures gave some people a newly found reality of surviving outside of the corporate routines. The underground station of Shinjuku, Tokyo was filled with cardboard houses populated by the homeless people.
It’s a story of young artists who themselves lived on the edge of the corporate cage, relentlessly trying to be true to humanity…
I came across their website recently and the English translation was missing in the descriptions of their art works which are crucial in telling the story of those artists. I offered to translate some of them and here is a first set of images which tells about how they got started.
Photos are by Naoko Sakokawa.
The very first Shinjuku Underground Station West exit Cardboard painting.
Initially, I wasn’t intending on painting those cardboard houses at the underground corridors at all. I was set to street-paint in Shinjuku, guerrilla style. I walked around Shinjuku with paint cans with “TAKEWO”. But the seemingly open, unrestricted big city didn’t have any place for the guerrilla paint job. We looked and looked but it was all systematic. We just walked around aimlessly with disappointment.
We just stood around hopelessly. The city was gigantic and oppressive. As we followed the river of people in despair, we came across the village of cardboard houses at the Shinjuku Underground Station West Exit. We stumbled onto one of them, knocking the cardboard door:
“What do you want?” A large man with a menacing face answered.
“I’m an artist and I would like to paint on your cardboard house,” I answered.
“Like I said, I would like to paint on your cardboard house.”
“OK, go ahead.”
That’s how our cardboard house painting got started. We, “TAKEWO” and I, spent all night painting two of the cardboard houses that night. We kept hearing distant sounds of people screaming and shattering glass, and the underground corridor was filled with the police siren and the ambulance siren every once in a while.
In the summer night, our rebellion was born in the underground of the mega city.
This piece is considered a representative work of ours that survived the forced removal of homeless people by the city of Tokyo on 1/24/1996. It’s THE Shinjuku Underground Station West Exit cardboard house painting.
Yamane mentioned the words “Left Eye of Shinjuku”. The image of those words got the three of us started. It was an all night live painting. The battle of us three. It was so intense that we drew some audience.
Across from the West Exit rotary there is a monument called “An Eye of Shinjuku”. It’s the right eye. And the one we painted is the left one. Makes sense. It’s the pair. The giant eyes had emerged in the Shinjuku underground corridor. The underground became a creature with a soul, baring its teeth against fucking Japan.
Just in case, I must say that the “Left” of “The Left Eye of Shinjuku” has nothing to do with the left wing. So those middle aged dick-wad lefties dragging around the 60s shouldn’t mix this up with that. We are not piece of shit like you all. By the way, it’s odd but when we finished painting this one, we somehow felt that when this painting is gone, that’ll be the time this village will be gone.
The Left Eye of Shinjuku which survived the forced removal had prevailed as a symbol of the underground kingdom.
Then the big fire of February of 1998 came. Soaked in water, the painting was disposed of by the City of Tokyo, and the village has disappeared as well. The Left Eye of Shinjuku really died with the cardboard village.
A piece made with circles.
I wished my work to be weirdly “inevitable” to the time and the space, not to be about my personal ideology, my philosophy or my process.
I drew lots of circles. A circle doesn’t have edges. It’s round, and it looks the same from any angle. And it’s somewhat humorous. I was edgy but I drew lots of circles.
When we become excessive, we lose the essence. I also wanted my expression to include a healthy dose of looseness and a sense of humor. But that was pretty tough. We often ended up painting with a grabbing-someone-by-the-neck sort of an attitude.
Myself screaming savagely with a knife in my hand, myself being inclusive with a sense of humor, many thoughts went through my mind.
But I felt that the experience which transformed me positively the most is when I touched the warmth of humanity.
This might be a picture when the cardboard village was being removed.
Far into the picture there is the word “sin” (罪) and to the left, there is the word “no”(無), the piece reads “innocent”(無罪). It was a piece done as a reaction to the not guilty verdict of 1/24/1996 to an activist for protesting against the removal of the cardboard village. Later the verdict was reversed. The activist became the sinner and the city committed a sin of eradicating the cardboard village. A sin is manufactured according to the convenience of the society. The society is made up with individuals. While we fight among each other, we are harming the planet. It might be correct that we are all born sinners.
And here is another old one. This was one of the very last paintings on canvas I did back back in 1995. I feel that there is a direct lineage to the sculptures I do today. When I painted it I felt that I was stepping into something different– the colors got muted and the forms were starting to emerge. Wish I can show it in person.
Here is a picture of my old painting and a detail. I took a few old works out of my storage a few months ago intending to document them but I got busy with the show and I kept procrastinating.
As I kept looking at them I was quite struck by the elements that I can still see in my current work: Some of the forms, use of lines, contrast, and so on.
And you can observe that the object like quality is actually starting to articulate themselves as the very rough texture, irregular edges, grooves and blobs. This was a year before I stated to make holes on boxes covered with plaster.Painting on canvas #1 (detail), 1995, 60 x 40 inches
Last weekend I took my kids to Adam Stennett‘s art project “Artist Survival Shack” in Bridgehampton, NY. Adam is an artist from Brooklyn. After the market crash of 2008, he had to be away from his art a little concentrating on making ends meet. This project marks his first major project in 5 years.
The past a few years have been a time of contemplation for me as well. To me, artists explore possibilities of how we can be, how we see things and how our world can be. And we depend on our radars high up in the air beyond our social restrictions, authoritative controls, religious guidances, and so on to see our own visions. We reflect the wider reality that’s in synch with the time beyond our civilization, our domestic habitats, and the corporate cage of the mainstream culture. But I feel that I am in the minority among the artists today.
I am not saying that we should all be activists or start doing political art but I find it’s so disturbing, for example, that many of us willingly support politicians who colonize other nations, cut our vital social programs in favor of wars, jail whistleblowers to torture, deceive people to pass pro corporate laws, sell our health for profits, imprison people for cheap prison labor, support political assassinations, detain human rights activists… And there is not enough outrage among us the artists. The ones who are regarded as the finest, the most respected, think nothing of bowing down to the authority, receiving medals of honor from the very culprit of the tragic decisions.
So when Adam told me about his self-sustaining off-the-grid survival shack for making his art. I immediately understood his intention. To me it is an experiment in detaching the artist from the machine. He collects rain water to bath, to cook and to water his vegetable plants. He gets electricity from the solar panel. He composts everything including his waste to fertilize his plants and to experiment with the native plant growth.
When he showed me his spud gun and a bow and arrows in his shack, I knew that he was poking fun at our helplessness and desperation against the overwhelming capability of the machine to kill and destroy.
And when he showed me a piece made with golf balls with corporate logos–Dow chemical, Lockheed Martin, Monsanto, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, GE and etc.–and government agency insignias, I was struck with an image in my head of the players of the deep state discussing the future of the machine.
So in short, it was really nice encountering another soul struggling to make sense out of our time: Struggling to show us our potential as artists in the sea of the corporate world.
Also, having my kids around made me realize that his shack is his “fort”. It’s a little safe place with everything he needs. No one interferes. His world is there as he dreams. It’s so great to be an artist.
Adam will have a solo exhibit showcasing the results of his month long self-sustaining survival project at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, East Hamton Gallery, opening on 9/7/13. There will be his actual shack with the solar electric equipment, composting kit, painting studio set up, and of course his paintings done during his stay in the shack.