Rikuji Makabe

07.09.2012 – 26.09.2012, Triumph Gallery

When talking about Japanese painting, perhaps not every European art historian understands what they are talking about. For humbler spectators, then, those refinements in the form of all those flowers, trees and other natural phenomenon maniacally depicted by eastern artists for centuries on end, are all the more mysterious. While European specialists have repeatedly passed a death sentence on their painting, and then resurrected it from the ashes of photography and video, before again doing away with it, the Japanese masters have been marking the second millennium of a prolonged graphic renaissance.

At the Triumph Gallery there is an exhibition by an artist who is one of the heirs to this ancient tradition, but also a great master of modern art – Rikuji Makabe, born in the city of Kanazawa in 1971. On his canvases and wooden panels, the multicolored, precisely developed plants are interspersed with monotone human figures briefly sketched, with just a couple of waves of the paintbrush, the texture of the materials organically transforming into the patterning of leaves. In order to understand how all this correlates with age-old traditions, and more importantly, and more complexly, blends with the modern context, we must go on a short excursion.

Firstly, the traditional surface for painting since the 16th century has been the screen, which explains Makabe’s passion for the linear component in the construction of his works. A parallel tradition of the same period is subjects on the theme of rakutyu-rakugai, which is to say the depiction of city life in Kyoto: people, temples and, of course, nature, direct references to which are easily found in Rikuji’s work. Those studying Japanese painting believe that it was with the appearance of this sphere that the modern graphic tradition formed, with its interest in the formal side of reality, rather than the animation of everything material in an airless space of surfaces, as had previously been the case.

On the other hand, Makabe not only places his images on canvas and wood – he also sites them on the walls of Japanese buildings. As inhabitants of European cities, we see this approach as simply being normal street art. For the Japanese, however, who strictly orientate their houses along the lines of the compass and closely observe energy flows, and for whom each and every detail has a symbolic significance, this is glaring, bold post-modernism. For Makabe himself, it is also conceptualism. In placing the images on the wall surfaces, he studies the interaction of the pictures with the surrounding world and nature, which allows him to broaden the capabilities of his own artistic language and the graphic traditions of his culture in general. Whatever the methods and subtexts, it is the result that is most important, which is to say the picture. And the result is that we have painting in avant garde tones that blends from afar into something that is abstract but turns out to be developed through to the finest of details (right down to the leaves and the branches) on very close examination. The dark shadowy foliage that swallows the sky in the work “About the summer solstice” and the bristling needle-shaped, sultry trees in “Memories of arbores,” the alarmingly chaotic forest belt with people scattered between the plant-life in a work with the metaphorical title of “Prayer,” or the sunny “Mimosa,” which is painted as if it’s a backlit, light-struck photograph – all this leaves the nagging question “what?” far behind, making the question of “how?” far more important.

As a landscape, which would appear to have ceased to exist in the modern graphic arts as a separate iconographic genre, instead fulfilling a role more akin to that of a theater set backdrop, is it possible that an independent subject has turned out to be more alive than the living? In the setting of a genre question on the context, and with such magnificent mastery as a graphic artist, it becomes entirely unimportant whether it is conceptualism or abstractionism, or whether it has the right to be termed “modern” or it is merely an archetypal skill. What is important is that it is real painting – the death that has long been predicted in the conditions of international globalization must again be put off.

Alexandra Rudyk