Japanese painter Tomokazu Matsuyama has created a personal aesthetic world that straddles the figurative and the abstract, the real and the imagined. His intensely colorful works hark back to the imagery of Edo-period woodblock prints and paintings, just as they present an exhilaratingly fresh take on life today. Melding together a string of cross-pollinating reference points and artistic tropes, Matsuyama delivers a visual vocabulary that references and rectifies the past, just as it begins to explain the here and now.
Based in New York City after growing up between Japan and California, Matsuyama brings to his canvases a unique bicultural vision that plays out in always exciting ways. His educational and career backgrounds are just as diverse as his upbringing: he holds a BA in Management from Tokyo’s prestigious Sophia University and an MFA in Communications Design from New York’s Pratt Institute, one of this nation’s strongest art schools. Add to this the fact that the artist was once a professional snowboarder, and the deeply complex foundations and always undulating energy of his current artistic practice begin to make more sense. Tomokazu Matsuyama is emblematic of today’s diverse and global art world, and his paintings are thus able to be read from a variety of standpoints with no single influence or foundation taking sway over any other.
At first glance, Matsuyama’s paintings come across as bright pastiches of color and form, pattern and expressive whimsy. Often, a singular figurative element dominates the canvas—everything from a mythical kirin (a hybrid beast in Asian folklore that blends elements of a deer and dragon) to floating human beings—against pure white or at times striking bright background. Upon closer inspection, the viewer discovers that the make-up of these players is anything but direct; certain areas of the figure are constructed with crisp patterns and shapes, whereas others are fully defined by gestural abstraction. Matsuyama conflates figurative and abstract painting techniques into a singular style, utilizing both to give birth to his forms and to create a most alluring tension between the two poles of art history as it relates to paint. It may not seem apparent to the viewer, but Matsuyama actually accomplishes this feat through a subtractive process in which he first lays down his abstract underground, its washes and whirls readily apparent in his painterly gestures, and once that layer has dried, proceeds to paint over certain areas in either bold patterning, or in the case of his “border areas,” solid color. Once this is understood, the white or patterned areas of his painting are no longer the background of the work, but are instead the final layer which both gives form to the figures depicted and masks a large area of abstract-expressionistic folly previously laid down. Thus, by taking away the abstract, Matsuyama both literally and figuratively gives rise to figuration.
From an art historical perspective, this building of form through the painting over of abstraction is a curious undertaking. Imagine Jackson Pollock taking a brush to one of his lyrical works after the last wisps of paint had dried, only to use his brushwork as the underpaint that ultimately forms the sinews and skins of other bodies shaped by the overpaint added in the next stage. There is a lot to be read into this: is Matsuyama making a bold statement in his painting, attempting to control his abstract expressionist leanings? Is he claiming ownership over Pollock—or by extension, the mainstay of mid-century American art—by relegating Ab Ex to the background and using motifs culled from Japanese art history as the central players in his work? Of course, Ab Ex was just as celebrated in Japan as it was in the West, and many movements of the 1950s in Japanese postwar art responded to it almost immediately. For example, Akira Kanayama, one of the central figures in the Gutai movement, created a remote-controlled machine that laid down paint, mimicking Pollock’s drips and sweeping paint with homemade technology instead of the human hand or artist’s subconscious. Looked at as a global phenomenon that took root in Japan too, it is possible to look at Abstract Expressionism as a tenet of Japanese contemporary art, and this is something that Tomokazu Matsuyama pays particular attention to, and ultimately, pays respect to in his own use of abstraction as a means of arriving at his end game.
There is, however, much more to Matsuyama’s body of work than his use of abstraction as painterly ground. In the end, his works are figurative for the most part, and his chosen repertoire of magical animals and human beings is culled not only from the canon of Japanese art, but from myriad sources in the West as well. His bold use of color and his painterly touch elicit a sense of motion in the figures portrayed, and in a way, Matsuyama’s work might be said to share traits with graffiti or street art thanks to these and other factors. Indeed, he has completed several outdoor mural projects in New York City. His work aligns itself with the vocabulary of graffiti thanks to its playful nature and heavy use of flowing paints, even though the artist carefully constructs each image in lieu of dashing it out with a can of spray paint under the cover of night.
It might be useful to think of him as a hip hop musician cutting and scratching and mixing variant sounds to innovate and perfect a new composition, but instead of using music, Tomokazu Matsuyama blends multiple images into a new visual culture that is easily understood regardless of national background. Viewed in this light, Matsuyama’s paintings might best be seen as multinational primers on art history and global visual exchange. Matsuyama again uses what might best be called a “cut and paste” technique, picking out certain attributes or figures from a work, and then turning that edited figure into the main subject of a given painting. In some works, Matsuyama singles out figures from renowned ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai’s manga-esque daily drawings. Hokusai’s figures seem to leap into space, convulsing and turning in a haze of Matsuyama’s painterly bursts, their bodies are made up not of abstraction, but are fully painted over the skein of Matsuyama’s abstract background. By borrowing from Hokusai, Matsuyama pays homage to one of the greatest egalitarian artists in Japanese history, namely due to the fact that in his time, Hokusai’s manga were decidedly aimed at the average person.
Matsuyama counterbalances this nod to the “low brow” in another work in which he pays tribute to the ultimate in high brow taste, a painting by court painter Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) titled Dog Chasing from the first decades of the Edo Period. Sanraku was adopted into the famed Kanō School family after working for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the unifier of Japan, and soon became leader of the movement. In this lush screen painting on gold leaf, horse riders chase after running dogs with bows drawn in a sport that would ruffle many feathers today. Matsuyama’s version of the work is a large-scale painting measuring seven by fifteen feet. He gives the work a unique spin by taking the riders from the gilt ground of the original, and places them in a magical forest with a heavenly snow-filled night sky beyond. All of the components, the horses, riders, trees and even a rock in the rear portion of the scene embody Matsuyama’s abstract gestures. The horsemen and their steeds are alive with color as they gallop through a purple-hued forest, the canine prey, also in purple, safely set behind and beyond. Again, Matsuyama makes dual reference to the canons of Eastern and Western art history. His figures are a direct reference to Kanō Sanraku, whereas the depiction of riders also makes a nod to the cowboy machismo of the American West. The artist feels that such imagery defines who we are as a people, or as a nation, and by highlighting a common trait between America and Japan, positions himself at the very intersection of those two cultures and their histories.
Matsuyama has quite literally taken his inspiration from the important paintings of Japan’s past, from ukiyo-e (or “images of the floating world”), and from a wide variety of Western sources. He has blended all of them into a most contemporary amalgamation that very actively erases the boundaries between nations, mindsets, art histories and aesthetic tropes. His is a global vocabulary that successfully references the past without bowing down to it. It is a fresh way of seeing our own contemporary conditions through the lens of history, and even through the skein of Abstract Expressionism. It is a style of painting that conflates figuration and abstraction into one; a technique that masks and mirrors the so-called book-ends of 20th-century art. Simply stated, Tomokazu Matsuyama has created a world of whimsy and energy that very smartly mimics his own talents, interests and global outlook, as well as the whole of art history lingering beyond.