A Free Floating Point of View
- Examining the Paintings of Shoichi Okumura
Maiko Yamauchi, Curator
I first saw ‘Hoyden Enjoying the Cool of the Evening’ at The Taro Okamoto Award for Contemporary Art in February of 2017, and it was just a few weeks later that I saw the piece ‘Sunset Journey’ at the Joint Graduation Exhibition of Five Art Universities in Tokyo. Afterwards I found pondering why I had felt a sense of deja-vu while standing before both pieces.
Shoichi Okumura was born in BeiJing, China in 1989. Within a few years his family moved to Tokyo and he has almost no memory of this early time in China. While he had loved to draw since he was a child, it was in his first year of highschool that he decided to set his sights on becoming an artist. In his teens he admired the work of artists such as Klimt and Schiele, and these influences can be clearly seen in Okumura’s work from his first few years at university.
At 21 years old Okumura decided to study abroad, having felt his mind and body limited by his own inner conflicts. He decided to go back to the country of his birth. In addition to studying brushwork, he also fell in love with the traditional culture of the place. His work changed completely to Eastern subjects, and sumi ink brush lines began to support the fundamental structures of his pieces. This was also the time when he began to focus on old men and young women as his subjects, a pattern which still holds true today. While the melancholic tones of his pieces did recall earlier works, the freeing of his subjects from an enclosed environment did represent an important departure. In these new works, which posses an earthy animism reminiscent of Gauguin’s works in Tahiti, it is possible to see how Okumura changed from personal emotional work to a more universal world view.
It was about a year after his return to Japan that the young women of his paintings would begin their movement. In fact, they quickly became the catalyst for new changes and movement within his work. This change can be seen in how the figures relate to the earth upon which they stand. In the beginning these figures are closely tied to mountains and rivers within the frame, but starting in 2014 they become less and less connected to the ground, with even the ground itself beginning to float unattached to the surroundings at times. Even if pieces of ground are shown they seem to exist only as slight footrests for the figures, never really holding their weight in full (‘Young Woman Landscapes - Forgotten Shangri La’ is an example of this.) In time they began to take poses akin to astronauts floating freely in the space station. The figures look off in a direction different from the one in which they are moving, giving them an air of capriciousness or ambition.
Apart from the figures, the flowers and fruits he paints are also an important part of the works’ charm. In the beginning they were mostly plants viewed traditionally to be auspicious omens, but starting in 2016 he began to incorporate plants from other countries as well, such as a cacti. This ability to mix elements which have been stylized overtime by forebearers throughout a long history, with elements which have been stylized through repeated sketching by the artist, along with the natural ease with which they mix is truly a mark of great skill. He says that the man-made objects such as propeller planes and bicycles are included as a way to introduce straight lines, and thus a sense of sturdy form, into compositions which are otherwise full of organic shapes.
Regarding these sumi ink lines in his work the artist said “The paper and ink are truly in control until the very end” (‘Works of Okumura Shouichi 2013-2014’). “By using the whole body, not just the fingertips, to draw the figures, they become integrated into the lines” (From an interview in March of 2017).
This shows us the great reverence he feels towards the ink and paper, revealing him as an artist who works to create with his whole body. As for his creative process, he begins by drawing directly on the piece, without first creating a separate sketch. While the central figure is planned out somewhat in advance, the other elements are built up intuitively as part of this process. For him to start a piece without bringing it to completion is very rare. For this style of creation to take place with sumi ink, which once drawn cannot be erased, is a testament to the very precise and skilled brushwork of the artist, and to the passion which brings him to say ‘there is still so much I want to draw.’ It is clear that these two elements exist in tandem in his work.
In his work moving forward the artists wants to try his hand at motifs from Southern countries and tropical areas. It seems his work will continue to be held up as an example of work pushing against the idea of modernism. This should serve as a cool-eyed look towards those who seem to focus solely on Western Art. When we stand in front of Okumura’s paintings, it can be easy to become lost in the shiny lips and luscious skin of his figures. However, it is important to remember that these works also challenge the way in which the world currently accepts without question the use of modernism as a universal measure of merit.
I visited the artist’s workplace in late March while writing this article, and at the end of our interview he offered to play a piece for me on the piano. While he began his musical training with classic music his interest currently leans towards music with roots in Africa, techno music, and other genre. That day he played a Jazzy melody for me. As I was listening I found myself recalling the ‘Composition’ series by Kandinsky, in which the abstract works were formed by striving to make music visible. It would seem that these works were the reason for the deja vu I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
It is true that Kandinsky, who brought the art world from modern art into the present day, was raised in the Ukraine, far away from the center of the modernist world at the time. In an era where the people who worked to expand modernism in so many directions have begun to enter into a state of protectionism, Okumura’s works, which come from a study of history, and which layer flowery style with critique, hold very important meaning. Maybe we need to reexamine the world from a place free from gravity, floating free like those young women or Kandinsky.