EVERY TIME AN ARTIST DIES…
Every time an artist dies, a star forever dims its light in the firmament.
Tomie Ohtake and Tetsuya Ishida were both from Japan. They were both painters, and they are both deceased. Their style of painting couldn’t be more dissimilar. Their views of the world and the reality they experienced even more divergent; their life spans, astoundingly disparate.
1913: Tomie Ohtake is born in Kyoto, Japan.
1973: Sixty years later, Tetsuya Ishida was born in Yaizu, Shizuoka, Japan.
They lived in different times, during their youth, and experienced different social and personal problems, but they poured their hearts and souls into their work, manifesting their vision in a ceremonial act of reaching out to others and communicating joy, and angst.
At the age of 23 Ohtake went to Brazil to visit her brother in 1936. The Sino-Japanese war broke out, and soon afterwards WWII, making her return to Japan impossible. Ohtake settled in São Paulo, Brazil. She got married, had two children and started a new life.
After graduating from High School at the age of 19, Tetsuya Ishida began to feel the pressure his parents put on him to pursue an academic career and become a teacher or chemist. Ishida’s father, a member of parliament, and his mother, a housewife, denied him any financial support during his years at Musashino Art University.
Tomie Ohtake never learned Portuguese fluently, maintaining a strong accent that only added charm to her artistic persona. She communicated as an artist through color and abstract form that she intuitively and organically brought to life. She says that upon arriving in Brazil she felt fascinated with the light of the sun, the magnificent yellow light glistening on the new landscape before her attentively amused eyes.
Ishida showed signs of his artistic talents from an early age, but he lived in times of enormous economic crisis; this would have a colossal impact on his work. During his years at the university, Japan had entered a great recession known as the “lost Decade” comprising the years of 1991 to 2000, but recently they have also included a second decade from 2001 to 2010. After the economic anomalies that made Japan enjoy an economic growth during 1980’s, the following decade drowned Japan into debt, creating a serious asset bubble with prices going up, over-inflating the economy. Prices went up so quickly over a short period of time that made it impossible to support the demand for the products. It doesn’t take too much to recognize analogous scenarios worldwide. Prices going up and shortage of basic products contributing to full-blown inflation.
Tomie Ohtake was a painter and sculptor. She expressed her art through an informal abstractionism that linked her Japanese heritage with an international presence in the arts in Brazil. Ohtake had a phenomenological approach to painting. Her interaction with the paint was organic and was brought forth through a constant integration of the body and the senses in her perception and relationship with reality. Ohtake would say: “I don’t like small things. I don’t like to paint with finger tips. I use the whole body.”
I have recently been to the first Tetsuya Ishida’s exhibit at the Asian Art Museum and found myself transported to a world that left me suspended in a state of weightlessness. His work is said to be a type of dark surrealism, but I would rather see it as “ontological surrealism”, a surrealism that is concerned with the relationship of human beings and their condition in the world. I don’t find his work dark. I find his work reflective and meditative of the social systems that affect our lives so intrusively. The landscape is familiar but the construct is volatile and ethereal. In Ishida’s work, human beings are often morphed into objects like cans, sinks, buildings; as if they were imprisoned by the concept of those objects that falsely define their identity within the context of modern societies. There are instances where people are coming out of the bodies of reptiles or insects, organically obliterating the fine lines between our prosaic reality and nightmarish visions of life. In Ishida said that he was attracted to artists who “feel the pain of all mankind” and who “truly believe that the world is saved a little with each brushstroke.”
When you look at a Tomie Ohtake painting you can feel the vibrancy of life in the way she painted. There’s movement and chaos, but also an abundant state of awe for life, an innate urgency to communicate though color and organically reproduced shapes that redefines our perceptions. Ohtake’s style of painting is usually labeled as informal abstractionism, aka lyrical abstraction. In simple words, this style is classified as being free of the constraints of mathematical geometric forms. In the case of Ohtake’s paintings her shapes are born out of an organic impulse to become active through the relationship of the painter’s body and his senses when interpreting reality with the knowledge acquired by this holistic and phenomenological approach to art. She even painted with eyes closed, letting her body and internal imagery guide her hand. Her paintings are full of life and movement which defies simple rationalism or congruous interpretations.
Ishida liked Franz Kafka. It’s unquestionably ubiquitous the Kafkaesque atmosphere in Ishida’s paintings. The more overt examples are easily noticeable in the blending of human and reptiles or insects; even cockroaches are coalesced into the human form suggesting the same type of alienation that Kafka so brilliantly explored and exposed in his stories. The subjects in Ishida’s work are not happy, but they are not fighting back either. There seems to be a complacent apathy in his painting that holds the individual captive and offers no possibility for change. There’s always an expression of disillusionment on the faces of the subjects portrayed. They display a vague look as if they are hopeless and are only waiting for their impending deaths. In that sense, Ishida’s work resonates with that of American painter George Tooker. A recognizable aura of isolation and disassociation of the individual within the social landscape is found in Tooker’s paintings giving us a similar experience where the individual feels lost and unable to find their place in the world. (example 1; example 2; example 3; example 4)
In contrast to Ishida’s themes, Ohtake’s representational world cries out life with its vibrant colors. Her paintings have movement and almost seem to be at the point where the paint will pour out of the canvas and enwrap us. Striking colors dance before our eyes from layers of subdued tonalities which suddenly come up to the surface under the hefty organic shape created by the artist. It seems Ohtake starts with an idea that could be a dot or a smudge and develops it into a receding ripple that creates a fascinating interplay with other colors or hues of the same color. There are times that the paint seem to be the effect of the rays of the sun on the surface of water causing a glistening moving layer of sparkling flakes or scales. Or perhaps, they are part of foliage that reveals translucent or even opaque shadows. Ohtake’s paintings open the door to a mystic relationship between the viewer and her unpretentious abstractionism. Her paintings are easy on the eyes of those who would otherwise, most likely, snub abstract art. Through the many phases she experimented with during her long career, Ohtake developed a connection with the paint and brush that surpassed academic theories. She painted with her soul in a symbiosis that joined together her mental construct and her entire body. This artistic and sensual maneuver on her part resulted in vivid tableaux that captured the attention of not only the artistic, trained elite, but also the simple, laymen who felt transcended into a world of movement and color, inviting their silence within to be expressed with the plain act of just looking.
The key to understanding a work of art is mainly allowing oneself to be open and giving the artist one’s undivided attention and time to let the work speak to you. It is in these interstices that we go beyond the artistic debate, and the intention that motivated the artist in the first place is fully reached in its full force of elements, reaching the zenith of the artistic experience.
Tetsuya Ishida died too young, at the age of 31. There are inconclusive narratives that his death was not an accident, but rather a successful attempt to leave this world on his own terms. He was hit by a train and died instantly, at a railroad crossing, in the city of Machida, part of the metropolitan area of Tokyo. He left behind, during a ten-year career as an artist, over 180 paintings. On May 23rd 2015, it will be the 10th anniversary of his untimely death. The world is finally getting to know this brilliant artist, initially through the internet. We only hope that more comprehensive exhibits will give us all the chance to be touched by this young man’s vision and existential unease that are so familiar to us all in the context of inflated and dysfunctional societies within which we are intrinsically bound in the silence of our unheard voices. We are following a similar path.
The world Ishida represented on his canvas is no different than ours. It places us at center stage. We are the subject of his paintings. We are the individuals chained together in the economic landscape that makes us captive and forces us to walk endlessly towards the barren wasteland of our unfulfilled dreams. Reduced to mere cogs in the system that maintains our idealized lifestyles we fail to recognize that our identities have been smashed in this mechanized process. We become entangled with the objects of our consumeristic desires, devalued by the same principle that creates the novelty. Ishida had the courage to look beneath the surface of the glittering reality and see, for himself, the swirling and dangerous waters that drown the lives of every individual lost in the myriad of empty promises for a better life. The forlorn depiction he offered us was not coming from negativism, or the assumption that life was not worth living for, nor a dismissive attitude towards the world. Quite the opposite, in his desperate but quiet representations of a dismal reality he was urging us to pay attention so we can see ourselves reflected in the madness of it all.
The world has lost two different artists. Two different visions, same desire to inspire. Tomie Ohtake passed away in February 12th 2015, at the age of 101. Tetsuya Ishida died ten years ago, in May 23rd 2005, at 31 years of age. Both artists come from Japan in different times. Both complement each other in our shared humanity. Creation and destruction, in and of itself, part of who we are. It is life giving birth and death recreating the elusive quality of our lives. Looking at their work, we cannot feel indifferent for the impact is too grand to be overseen. The indelible images these artists fabricated follow us like a mirage of ourselves, of what we are, of what we were, of what we could have been and what we will be. It is our choice to listen to them. It is the explosion of the universe inside us with all its fervent colors and soothing expanding effects. It’s our discombobulated creation wreathed around us like the carcass of an insect organically attached to our bodies that seem foreign to us, yet accepted with a startling nonchalance. It is a constant movement of life and renewal. It is time we listened to what they are trying to say. It is time we paid attention to ourselves as a unique organism affecting one another in our evolutionary steps.
I miss Tetsuya Ishida and I miss Tomie Ohtake. I miss them both. And I wish I had known them and that I had become friends with them. I wish I were able to call them Tetsu and Tomie. I wish I could have listened to them talk about the way they viewed the world and how they expressed that sentiment in their works. These two artists belong to the pantheon of many other artists who managed to cross into the space of immortality through their oeuvres. They were able to put their vision and their existential experience into their paintings and touch us closely with their lives. These extraordinary beings achieved the remarkably tenuous task of transcribing onto the canvases their innermost feelings and emotions without the use of words. It is exactly through silence that we get closer to them; it is through silence that they speak to us in the exact moment and place where our human sacredness meets theirs.
I feel sad. Nothing horrible, though. I feel the type of sadness originated by an existential longing that we all feel somehow, but can’t quite put it into words. I strangely miss these two artists, as if missing them I’m missing a part of myself that died with them. It’s a beautiful feeling. That kind of feeling we have when we listen to a doleful adagio, or experience the sunset in complete silence and solitude. It is also the feeling we have when we acknowledge the vastness of the night sky by ourselves. I feel both Tomie and Tetsu with me and I miss them fiercely. It’s quite odd when we spend time with people like them without even having had the opportunity to meet them in person. They come to us and change us somehow. They bring their whole world into ours. That’s what the magic encounter with a true artist is like; painters, writers, poets, musicians, philosophers, composers, singers, a friend or companion, our neighbor: they all have the ability to change us and touch us in the depths of our beings with their creative souls. That’s what the magic encounter with the other is like. It is the connection that does it for us, and we miss that so much. I have felt that way since the first time I saw Ohtake’s paintings because they’re so primitive and seminal. Then I met Ishida, and he took me to the other side of the mirror, and I saw myself depicted in his paintings, locked up, lost and unsure.
I miss Tetsuya. I miss Tomie. I miss everything that’s beautiful and pure in us. I miss our forgotten simplicity and our capacity to just be.
We are all artists in our own way, capable of creating beauty every time we make that choice, every time we touch another being.