There is no question that Akira Yamaguchi is an exceptionally fluent draughtsman.
An exceptionally fluent draughtsman: Left alone with a jar of Chinese ink, a fine-tipped brush and a workable surface of some kind, Yamaguchi can conjure entire worlds, half-imagined, half-remembered, but wholly convincing. His streamlining methods for weaving figures into complex architectural space are derived partly from older Japanese scene painting, and partly from the dynamics of comic-book perspective. His dream repertory features soldiers in antique regalia, warrior-gods, skeleton-warriors, horses, motorcycles, motorcycle-horses, mechanized horses, and fetishistically-rendered weaponry — or, the pictorial vocabulary of a sci-fi savvy nine year old, versed in the histories of armory and battle.
The trouble is that, trite musings on the fusion of technology with traditional motif notwithstanding (futurist motorcycle meets Edo-era horse, as it were), critical evaluation of his work effectively stops here: There is no question that Akira Yamaguchi is an exceptionally fluent draughtsman. This paucity of insight can be traced to two critical tendencies. Indefensibly, the first is laziness. Thus, one art historian, ensconced in a reputable Japanese university, writes ‘…unlike his counterparts at larger newspapers he [a small town reporter] had the good sense to avoid adding his own evaluations of the art in question, choosing instead to convey the words of the artist himself…’*
Left: Four Heavenly Kings ‘Jikokuten’ [Work in progress] (2006). Oil on canvas, watercolour, ink. 194 x 97cm. Photo courtesy of Kazuaki Futatsuka.
Right: Four Heavenly Kings ‘Zojoten’ [Work in progress] (2006). Oil on canvas, watercolour, ink. 194 x 97cm. Photo courtesy of Kazuaki Futatsuka.
Aptly, the second critical tendency relates to virtuosity, or a misreading thereof. For one cannot help but be floored by the mind-to-eye-to-brush-to-surface coordination that underpins the small-scale drawings and full-scale canvases on view in Yamaguchi’s current show at the Mizuma Art Gallery. On the second floor, the miniature downtown street scene, honeysuckle and camellia drawings confirm the artist’s mastery of expressive contour and pitch-perfect color wash. Upstairs, in the sweeping Four Heavenly Kings series, his sense of composition is all dexterity and equipoise: the seamless contrapposto and rich, varied modeling of the warrior goddesses; the quick, concise brushwork and torque of the mongrels they stand or float on.
Virtuosity, or a misreading thereof: Yamaguchi’s technique is incomparable, but his work is not limited to mandarin refinement. Nor is his flair for detail aimed at scrutiny, at drawing from life. Like Makoto Aida, his exquisite style in fact parodies style. At the Mizuma, the identifiable object of parody is the heroic manner. The martial grandeur of Yamaguchi’s installation piece is undercut by the lost, rather comical expressions of the soldiers, as they, facing uncertain death, linger between the decorative clouds of heaven and the battlefield stage set of earth; the monochromic legions extend deep into the horizon, but the vanguard looks unthreatening. In a coup of technical precision, the soldiers have been scaled down slightly; the viewer, from his turret-like enclosure, looks down on them, their élan, menace and violence suspended. Though Aida’s sexual and scatological preoccupations have been subtracted here, Yamaguchi’s equally subversive innocence remains.
A chance misapprehension can engender solid work. Blindly following others and jumping on the horse’s back…can be liberating. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up grabbing it by the neck and making it behave.**
Who knows?: Such is the guiding question of the innocent, left alone with a jar of Chinese ink, a fine tipped brush, a workable surface of some kind, and an unfettered repertory of warrior-goddesses and mechanized (liberating) horses. At thirty-eight, Yamaguchi is at a relatively early stage in a career which will, in all likelihood, span a lifetime. As he forges ahead, it would be a shame to see his unique talent and intelligence done further disservice by critical slackness or criticism as mere promotion — what we might call the jaded machinery of fame.
*’The art in question’ is of course Yamaguchi’s, and presumably the business of evaluating it should be left to specialists like the present historian, who has ‘the good sense to avoid’ both ‘his own evaluations’ and ‘the words of the artist himself’. Instead, our specialist pads his scattered art historical name-dropping with an anecdotal portrait of himself, much less ‘the artist himself’. His assessment turns on a display of unsettling compromise: he reveals his ambitions as a collector of Yamaguchi’s work, mentioning the six-figure price tag appended to ‘art in question’ as proof of status. So much for critical detachment…
** From The Art of Akira Yamaguchi: Akira Yamaguchi, University of Tokyo Press 2004.
All images courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery.