27 Jan. 2017

An Orphan in the History of Painting / HOSHINO Futoshi

The works of Shinotsuka Seiya (b. 1970), a Japanese artist who creates oil paintings using his fingers, are often deemed puzzling, especially by those with a certain taste and knowledge as regards contemporary painting. This essay will show how such an impression comes to mind, and then argue that his work is an "orphan" in the history of painting.

It is difficult to find paintings that look “similar” to Shinotsuka’s work. Indeed, this is a common first impression of those viewing his work. It is not so easy to compare his work to those of other contemporary artists. Generally, when examining a painter’s work, familiarity with the history of painting inevitably triggers the recall of precedent painters or their styles that might have influenced the pieces being viewed. However, Shinotsuka’s painting would not offer a clue to how his works are the way they are; even a rich imagination would not suffice in predicting how the painting comes to “this.” His painting does not demonstrate any clear sources, such as styles and motifs, that can explain how the artist shaped himself into such a painter. Figuratively, his painting exists as it is, as “an orphan” in the history of painting.

To pinpoint the basis for the uniqueness of Shinotsuka’s work, we need to analyze each aspect of his practice. His work can be described as follows. The motifs in his paintings are relatively easy to identify. They seem to represent landscapes or objects in a vague way. A number are obviously depictions of mountains, whereas others, stones along a roadside. In his latest exhibition at Ando Gallery in Tokyo, he selected various motifs, such as bear and tree. A bear is represented in Claw (2015) and Blacktop (2016), and an object that appears to be a tree is featured in Hold and October (both 2016). A certain difference can be noted between them; the bear appears in a more figurative manner, whereas the tree looks less clear and abstract. In any case, these motifs are not exceptional in contemporary painting. Hence, the uniqueness in Shinotsuka’s work does not simply come from its motifs.

As for the technical aspect, Shinotsuka is notable for painting using his fingers, a practice he has used for more than ten years. Such a painting style is undeniably unique. However, as the fact is not so apparent in the paintings, the style would not be the only reason for the impression that his work is not similar to other artists’.

An artist's background generally informs her/his art, so Shinotsuka's may yet explain the puzzle that is his orphan work. Intriguingly, Shinotsuka studied Japanese painting at Tama Art University in the 1990s. Nevertheless, shortly after graduating, he started his career as an artist producing installations. In other words, he became known as an installation-maker with a background in Japanese painting. He began painting using acrylic and oil pastel in the 2000s. The group exhibition “No Border,” held as MOT Annual in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo (2006), was turning point in his career. Shinotsuka was among seven young artists who had studied Japanese painting in art schools and universities introduced in this event. From such a background, many expected his painting style to be influenced by Japanese painting: for example, his painting style should bear similarities to that of Japanese painting. Indeed, he works by making gradual layers on canvas without scraping the paint, a procedure that is comparable to that in Japanese painting. Many have also noted that his exhibition produces an atmosphere comparable to artistic installations; he always seems to produce a form of installation space with his vague paintings (comparable to Mark Rothko albeit different in scale).

However, these observations are not on point. It would be more fruitful to focus on the creation process of his artworks rather than his background to reflect on how they are produced. As mentioned above, Shinotsuka has painted landscapes or objects beginning with his later works. However, according to him, he does not paint them while looking at the actual landscape or object but while recalling the scene when he saw them. The landscape of Aso Mountain, the most important motif for him, is evoked from his childhood memory of living in Kumamoto Prefecture. As for the mundane objects, such as rocks, trees, and animals (e.g., bears), he paints them while scanning his memory of the scenes when he saw them during walks in the mountain. The vagueness in his painting seems to derive from the distance between his experience and recollection, or “seeing” and “painting.” In this sense, Shinotsuka does not actually paint after the motif of a landscape or object but his own memory of them.

Shinotsuka began hiking around ten years ago, when he was in his mid-thirties. Interestingly, this period coincides with the time when he started making oil paintings. He has talked about his career in interviews, from his training in Japanese painting to creating installation works, and then to oil painting, but he has refrained from offering a reasonable explanation for his conversion from Japanese painting to installation and then to oil painting. As such, the reason would remain unknown until he discloses it. Nonetheless, the fact that he started both hiking and oil painting in almost the same period appears important, because his painting style of using his fingers is much more related to physical activities compared with the conventional style of painting with brushes.

Needless to say, painting is a physical activity, especially for such painters as Jackson Pollock. Compared with action painters in the 20th century, Shinotsuka’s approach is outstanding because of his use of his body; all ten fingers are used delicately to represent scenes from his memory. He keeps a certain distance from the actual landscapes and objects he saw some time ago. To put them on canvas, he prefers to use his fingers, instead of his whole body, to keep a certain distance from the real world, while relying on his memory.

His process shows the delicate development of receiving signals from memory and then expressing them with the tender touch of the fingers. Shinotsuka renders his own body as the “converter” of real-world objects into paintings through his memory. His body may be comparable to the seismometer that receives and visually converts the signals from the ground, experienced through hiking in daily life. His painting comes from such a “land,” which is considerably distant from the ecosystem of contemporary painting.