Eyes & Curiosity—Flowers in the Field (16 March – 21 April 2019), a group exhibition by four Japanese artists opened on 16 March, 2019 at Mizuma Gallery in Singapore. The exhibition, according to the gallery’s press release, embodies new interpretations of traditional techniques and explores the relevance of old ideals in today’s society. Working in different mediums, the artists— Kato Ai, Kimura Ryōko, Kobayashi Satoshi and Mizuno Rina present works that are a treat to the eyes.
From decorative natural landscapes, intricate relief paintings of nature, nihonga (Japanese-style) paintings of men to bubblegum-pop style depictions of women, the show updates contemporary themes and reflects how the artists navigate the legacy of tradition and of visual tropes.
Here, I will focus on a discussion of Kimura Ryōko’s selected works for the exhibition—Paradise of Dragon Palace, Fugen Bodhisattva, Monju Bodhisattva and Jizo Bodhisattva.
The centerpiece of Kimura’s exhibited works in Eyes & Curiosity is a large, four-paneled folding screen painting on the subject of Ryūgu (Ryūgu-jō) or Dragon Palace. In Chinese and Japanese folklore, sea gods were said to reside in these undersea palaces. Reference to Ryūgu is found in the popular legend of Urashima Tarō, who rescued a turtle and was rewarded by time spent at the Dragon Palace with Princess Otohime. In Kimura’s Ryūgu, mermen and other half-man-half-sea creatures frolic around in the underwater world. The painting is almost like an encyclopedic record of sea creatures and plants, showcasing species such as a stingray, squid and shark, amongst other detailed and decorative depictions of various corals.
Using Japanese pigments from Nihonga and gold leaf, the painting is a magnificent display of both technique and subject matter. Nihonga, or Japanese-style painting was a term coined in the modern history of Japanese art during the Meiji era. When Western (primarily oil painting) influences in art were rapidly gaining popularity, Japanese art was bifurcated into this dichotomy of Japanese-Western painting due to the circumstances of the time. The pigments used in nihonga are usually derived from natural minerals and through a process of grinding down to specific particle sizes, they are then mixed with a binder (nikawa or glue made from animal skin) and applied in layers. Unlike oil painting where mistakes or changes in the application of paint can be corrected, nihonga pigments are harder to manipulate through all stages from the preparation of the pigments to mixing and application on the painted surface. Considering that nihonga specialty courses in colleges and universities spend at least a year in foundation, learning how to handle and treat pigments, Kimura’s self-study and grasp of nihonga is impressive. In an interview with the artist in Musashi Bi Tsūshin (a monthly publication from Musashino Art University), she shared that she had learnt the techniques from nihonga friends to painting manuals and correspondence courses.
The stylistic treatment of Ryūgu—from the application of a gold leaf background, the rich palette of colours, the detailed depiction of underwater plants down to the gold clouds which part to reveal and contain individual settings within, reference the Kanō school style of painting. Kanō artists were active in the Muromachi period to the early Meiji era with some even serving as official painters for the shogunate. They followed a Chinese-style lineage of painting, adapting Chinese ink painting with the Yamato-e style.
Kimura’s careful study of past painterly traditions is successfully captured in Paradise of Dragon Palace which at a casual glance, seems to resemble a traditional Kanō-style painting. Upon closer observation, the painting reveals itself to be a rakuen or paradise where every unclothed male-fish subject is perfect. Their lean, naked torsos are sculptured, their chiseled good looks modeled after a selection of differently styled characters found in shōjō magazines, manga, anime and pop idol groups.
While Kimura admits to model them after certain bidanshi (beautiful men) found in pop culture, she did not intend to have them resemble actual idols. This deliberation allows each viewer to impose his or her own individual fantasy onto these subjects. Whether it was a high school classmate or an older rockstar idol, it was possible to find your fantasy amongst the paradise to one’s liking. The absence of women in this landscape aids in a powerful invitation to insert yourself into this imagination.
The same attraction is felt towards the Boddhisattvas found in the three paintings of Fugen, Monju and Jizo. In Buddhism, Boddhisattvas are persons who consciously delay their own nirvana to help others attain enlightenment. Jizo, is arguably one of the most commonly seen statue of Boddhisattvas in Japan, recognised by the red knitted bibs and caps that usually drape them. As the guardian deity of children, parents pray to Jizo for protection from illness or for the unborn and departed. Although the genre of Buddhist paintings (Butsu-ga) has a long history, the subjects are rarely depicted in the manner that Kimura does.
They are given a contemporary update, and in doing so, question conventions of portrayal and stereotypes associated with monks. A few months ago in Japan, social media erupted with footage of monks dressed in robes doing activities like skipping, skating and juggling. These “I can do this in monk’s robes” videos were an outpouring of support in response to a monk who was fined for driving dressed in his religious attire. The traffic police ascertained that religious robes were hazardous to everyday activity.
Kimura spoke about these new series of Buddhist paintings, relating a personal event at a temple ceremony years ago where the presiding monk was not only soothing in his performance of religious rites but also with his good looks. Almost a decade later, Kimura has finally had the chance to draw from memory, her lasting impression of this encounter.
Bodhisattvas Fugen and Monju, often depicted in a triad with Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) are represented here with beautiful faces and in masculine poses, showing off their ripped bodies. The dynamism and energy seen in Monju Bodhisattva, striding a lion, and the deliberate pose of Fugen sitting with his leg apart, excites and impresses. In a separate exhibition of these paintings in Kyoto last year, Kimura titled her show 「多情仏心」or Tajō Busshin which translates to “fickle but kind-hearted”. If monks in their religious garb could be allowed to partake in everyday activities such as in those videos mentioned-above, could they then not also exhibit human traits of being fickle, emotional or even amorous? Can they also exceed the norm, and be portrayed as impossibly beautiful, sexy demi-gods? By continuing with her theme of eros in the portrayal of men, Kimura moves her investigation into a new arena, exploring these questions in the pin-ups of religious personalities.
About the Artist, Kimura Ryōko 木村了子
Kimura Ryōko (b. 1971, Kyoto, Japan) is an artist who works and lives in Tokyo. She paints with a wide-ranging knowledge and interest in Japan’s pictorial heritage, including Chinese-style landscapes, Zen Buddhist ink portraiture, and Ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. At the same time, Kimura’s works are unmistakably contemporary due to her chosen subject matter, namely beautiful males, especially the movie idol and pop singer types commonly reproduced in Japanese teen girl magazines. Kimura graduated with a Master’s Degree in Mural Painting at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Japan. Her most recent exhibitions include Tenderheartedness at Kyoto-ba, Kyoto, Japan (2018); IkemenMärchen at Artcomplex Center of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan (2017); Beaute Animale de L’Homme at Galerie Vanessa Rau, Paris, France (2015); her works are in the public collection of Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas, United States, and Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, United States.
Mizuma Gallery (Singapore)
Sueo Mizuma established Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo in 1994. Since its opening in Gillman Barracks, Singapore in 2012, the gallery aims for the promotion of East Asian artists in the region as well as the introduction of Southeast Asian artists to the international art scene. Mizuma Gallery Singapore is located at 22 Lock Road #01-34 Gillman Barracks Singapore 108939.
Reproductions of images have been granted by the artist.
To download a PDF copy of this essay, please click >> Eyes & Curiosity—Flowers in the Field- Focus on Kimura Ryoko’s