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"Funkei", Kazuo Shiraga (Amagasaki, 1924 - 2008)

Shiraga’s abstract action paintings were born out of struggle. He began the process by placing a mass of paint on top of a canvas on the floor, suspending himself from ropes attached to the ceiling beams, and he proceeded to spread the paint around actively - even violently - with his feet. The opponents in the creative battle were his bare flesh and the material. The tension and strength arose from the struggle between the unconscious power of the body that threatens to jump off the canvas and the conscious power that creates a structure to bring it back inside.

Dating back to his early performances, such as “Challenging Mud” at the first Gutai Open Air Exhibition in Tokyo in 1955, the artist demonstrated his language of using physical, bodily acts to force material into compositional shapes. Throughout his long oeuvre, he demonstrated remarkable consistency in his process and technique. He joined the Gutai Art Association in 1954 and became a prominent member. The group dissolved in 1972, but for many of the artists, their pursuit of originality remained. In 1971, Shiraga entered the Buddhist priesthood at Enryaku Temple, Mt. Hiei. His Buddhist name was Sodo Shiraga. Equally strong in his later years, Shiraga continued to challenge the canvas creating a dynamic effect resembling the violent movements of a massive beast with an intriguing power and celestial lyricism. In an interview Shiraga said: “When you reach a state of selflessness, you don’t sense time pass as you’re painting. Before you even know it, the painting is done. I have the sense that the mental state you attain in Esoteric Buddhist training is identical to the one you attain when you paint a picture.”

In art school, Kazuo Shiraga studied nihon-ga, the traditional style of Japanese painting that makes use of pulverised mineral pigments and glue. After graduation, however, Shiraga came to dislike the rough texture of these materials and opted instead for the slippery texture of oil paint. He began exploring this texture with his fingertips before adopting increasingly wild actions and eventually using his feet to paint. Shiraga’s paintings seem to express what they have been searching for: the fusion of a spiritual act with the physical body. Rather than a system or logical explanation, they are primarily based on the artist’s intuitive state of mind. His intense actions translate his (un)consciousness vigorously into the matter.

Central to Kazuo Shiraga’s work is the concept of shishitsu. This term primarily means “innate characteristics and abilities”. Within a philosophical context, the term refers to a psycho-corporeal essence in ourselves that defines us and shapes us over time as individual human beings. This is what Shiraga wanted to put in the
centre of his art. By radically abandoning the paintbrush and starting to paint with his feet, Shiraga eliminated both composition and consciousness from his work.

In his quest to transport the essence of human energy into matter, and to feel one with the empty canvas, he invented his own form of action painting. He discovered a way of expressing a powerful flow of energy, going through him from head to toes and ending up being solidified on the canvas. Recurrent in Shiraga’s oeuvre
is this violent aspect, unlike in traditional Japanese painting, where violence was almost unheard of. It usually depicted flowers, birds and landscapes. All of his works express some sort of gruesomeness, as the artist once stated in an interview. Having read the historical Chinese novels on legendary warriors and fighters, Shiraga became fascinated by the beauty of violence and the poetry of its masculine force. Here in this work, painted in 1990, Shiraga uses his favourite colour red: the colour of blood, of passion, of violence and destruction. Still loyal to his intense technique of painting with his feet, the strokes are as strong and vibrant as ever. It evokes movement, energy, violence and an undeniable struggle between the artist, his mind and the resistance of the matter.

Object information

Oil on canvas
182 x 259 cm
Private collection, Switzerland; Axel Vervoordt Gallery, 2007; Gallery Annely Juda, London.
Kazuo Shiraga: Painting Born Out of Fighting, exh. cat. Azumino Municipal Museum of Modern Art,
Toyoshina, April 25-June 14, 2009, published no. 353.
Kazuo Shiraga, Paintings and Watercolours 1954-2007, Annely Juda Fine Art, London, 1st November-20th
December 2007, catalogue n°9.

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