By GORDON HATT
When Daisuke Takeya asked me if I would talk about his work on the occasion of his exhibition at the Japan Foundation here in Toronto, I was a little unsure of where I would begin. Takeya is an artist whose work ranges from figurative, portrait and landscape painting to video, installation and conceptual practise. His work is informed by personal experience, social criticism and by his professional training in figurative art – concerns and considerations which at times are articulated in specific bodies of work and at other times can be seen to form threads that connect and reappear at various places in his art.
It is impossible within the limited framework of this talk to adequately address all of the threads and media which encompass the artist’s practise, and I won’t attempt to do it here. Instead, I would like to apply conventional art historical method to a close analysis of some of Takeya’s paintings over the last 15 years. This examination will deal with how the artist’s concerns as a young man were given form within the idiom of his academic figurative art training in the early 1990s. I will trace the artist’s evolving engagement with the figure and the landscape as signifiers of feeling and desire to arrive at the current body of work.
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“Kara” in Japanese means “empty.” Its Kanji character also represents the word for sky, air, and space (“Sora”). Both “Kara,” and “Sora” hover above Toronto and Tokyo, as well as Ottawa, Osaka and the village of Pouch Cove, Newfoundland. It is one thing that all these places have in common. The “emptiness” or the “sky” of the Kara series of paintings can be seen to have its origins as far back as some of the artist’s early student work, where the inclusion of horizons into the backgrounds of figure studies and later as pendants to figure studies come to represent both a rhetorical and literal “emptiness.”
In the mid 1990s, Takeya was a student at the New York Academy of Art, an art school dedicated exclusively to the study of the human figure in painting, sculpture and drawing. The study of the human figure has its roots in classical Greek art and in its Roman imitators, where the gods and goddesses of Olympus were rendered as beautiful and heroic humans wearing little or no clothing. The revival of interest in classical mythology and art during the Italian Renaissance stimulated a return to illustrating mythologies and histories with the naked figure and learning the skill required to render the nude convincingly became one of the pillars of the academic teaching of art.
The study of the human figure meant originally learning anatomy from skeletons and cadavers. In the modern era photographs are an important source for visual information about the body. But most often the study of the human figure is accomplished through that staple of art school – the life drawing class. In life drawing class, a model disrobes and strikes a pose for a predetermined length of time. The model usually stands, sits or reclines on a low riser, surrounded by students at easels or with drawing pads. Depending on the point of the class, the model may start out with quick gestural poses, and then settle into one or two extended poses. To render a “finished” figure composition convincingly from life (e.g. without recourse to photography) the model must remain in the same pose for hours or in sittings that extend over days. The pose must be something that can be held reasonably still – no extended and raised limbs, or difficult and uncomfortable positions that cause the model to move and adjust position frequently. The job of modelling is not for fidgety people. If a person is capable of relaxing into a state of torpor they will probably make a good model and the artist will not have to constantly readjust the perspective and recast shadows. The good model is a paragon of inactivity. The good model does nothing. Just stands, sits or lies there.
Initially, working from the model is a transgressive experience. After all, how often do we sit in a room with a naked stranger? But the unsettling nature of this situation soon gives way to the various and complex challenges of rendering accurately the perspective and proportion of the human anatomy. Combined with the study of proportion, the repetition of the practise of drawing from the model in poses of extended duration produces artists who are adept at a naturalistic representation of the human body.
The reality of this practise of learning to draw from the figure, however, has had the inevitable effect of characterizing what we know of as figurative art. It gives us a disproportionately large number of images of a relatively narrow range of human activity and attitudes. Typically subjects recline or sit, are apparently thoughtful or vacant, sexually available or enervated and despairing because, that is what life models do best. Figurative painting can provide us with models of action, but these images are heavily dependent on photography and always betray the conventions of the lens. Painting and drawing from the figure then relies on a stationary and relaxed model and, as a convention, it tends to idealizes passivity, isolation and vulnerability.
Looking at Takeya’s early figurative work, one can see that the landscapes and environments in which he has placed his figures underscore the apparent enervation and lassitude of his models. Paintings such as Abandon, 1993, oil on linen, 81.5 x 43″; and Dead End Street, 1994, oil on linen, 80 x 55″ feature the juxtaposition of the naked figure with vacant, despoiled and dark city scapes. These paintings don’t create believable spaces as much as they describe to us symbolic and psychological states of mind. In Abandon, the reclining figure’s legs are supported by what looks to be a pile of junk. Further examination closer to the bottom of the canvas reveals random objects that one might find in an artist’s studio, piled high, occupying almost 90% of the canvas. Above and beyond the pile of junk, is a city scape – the silhouettes of a few tall buildings against a light sky, and above that a dark low lying cloud. In Dead End Street, a model standing in the classic contraposto position with head bowed is surrounded by road and highway barriers, a dust pan, a fire extinguisher, and a welding mask among other objects. A yellow line passes below the triangular police barrier, directing our line of vision to a horizon which is marked by a checkered yellow “Dead End” sign. The dark low- hanging cloud and the pile of junk, the “Dead End” sign, and the various street barriers, all work to signify a mood of pessimism and despair, a mood which already seems to be illustrated by the demeanor of the model.
In this early work, one is able to identify a youthful alienation expressed in the language of figurative and landscape painting – enervated figures and the bleak city scapes are symbolic rendering of the artist’s own feelings. Takeya characterized his mood at this time as being “happy to be sad.” On the threshold of adulthood, his experience of life was coloured by a pessimism born of a personal loss and an isolation that was accentuated by the experience of studying in a foreign country, in a language and in a culture that he was just beginning to understand.
A series of diptychs produced by the artist in the late 90s (Untitled, 1999, charcoal on paper, 56 x 40.5″; Pornography, 1999, oil on linen, 64 x 88″; Waveless Ocean, 1999, oil on wood, panel, 32 x 47″; Eternal Flame, 1999, oil on wood panel, 32 x 47″), contrasts, in the right hand panel, figures in various states of repose to, in the left panel, city, sea or landscapes familiar to the artist which are comprised of 80 to 95% sky. The right hand panels, many of which were based on life modelling sessions, are, like Abandon and Dead End Street, rendered again in moody, dark environments that create a general feeling of languor, aimlessness or despair. Like the earlier student paintings, each figure is cloaked in shadows and revealed only by the raking light of a single source – a light bulb, a television sometimes, but most often from what appears to be a window. One can imagine that the left hand panel may be the view outside that space, through the window perhaps, or again, psychologically speaking, a symbolization of the figure’s emotional landscape. Takeya has told me that the landscape images are of of Japanese places. Todaiji Temple in Untitled, Yokohama City in Eternal Flame, Yokosuka City in Pornography. After the gloomy cityscapes which complete the backgrounds of the earlier paintings, the big skies of the diptychs may seem bright and airy by comparison. But on further examination these big skies are overcast, or dusky or just bleakly empty. Perhaps the dark foreboding and pessimism of the earlier work has cleared up some, and become something a more manageable nostaligia, a little less heavy, and maybe the beginning of something new.
In the series of diptychs Everybody Loves You, done while he was still living in New York, Takeya continues the contrast between a big-skied landscape on the left and a figurative representation on the right. By this time, however, the figure studies have become somewhat uniform head and shoulder portraits lit by a single low frontal light. Recalling his earlier work where the figures were cloaked in shadow, the position of the light in the Everybody Loves You portraits illuminates the tip of the nose, cheekbones, and the brow, and casts heavy shadows on the rest of the head, including the bridge of the nose and the sides and top of the head. The effect, which is similar to holding a flashlight to your chin while standing in the dark, can be quite theatrical. It exaggerates contours, focuses attention on the eyes, diminishes the hair and surface quality of the skin, and in doing so de-emphasizes gender. The effect has been used in the cinema to allude to demonic possession or to an evil alter ego that may emerge after dark. But it is also associated with a type of campfire intimacy – the shared experience of being in the dark with others and the bonding in the face of uncertainty which that brings.
In other words, Takeya’s choice of lighting may be ideal for the complex topic of speaking of love, de-emphasizing gender and bringing into relief our conflicted identities and often awkward relations with friends, acquaintances and the objects of our affections. Moreover, the expression of affection, which is possibly more freely given in the United States than in Japan or even among the famously reticent Canadians, is none-the-less, universally problematic, and no amount of world travelling relieves the individual from this personal accounting: Do you or don’t you (love me), do you mean what you say (when you say “I love you”) and do you say what you feel (when you say “I love you”).
Perhaps this ambivalence is emphasized by the left hand panel cityscapes of the New York skyline as seen from Brooklyn. Few other skylines are as recognizable as the New York City skyline, and yet, as Takeya renders it under towering skies, he makes it seem quite ordinary, diminished in comparison to the infinite sky above, suggesting perhaps that like the famous skyline, the words “I love you,” may be just another banal social construction in the grand scheme of things. In Everybody Loves You the moodiness of the early figurative paintings and diptychs has been stripped down into a complex ambivalence. The anonymous and quiescent nudes have morphed into individuals with names – seemingly self aware and capable of action, but perhaps also with self-identities and beliefs as insubstantial and as unformed as the sky above.
From being “happy to be sad” in the years immediately following his arrival in North America, Takeya adapted emotionally and philosophically to his new home. In his painting he pared down the conventionalized figurative representations of sadness and despair into existential mug-shot like portraits and flat, almost featureless landscapes expressing neither happiness or sadness, but a heavy, pervasive spiritual emptiness.
The Kara series of paintings retains and enlarges the city scape with the big sky and altogether dispenses with its figurative pendant. No longer are we asked to consider the symbolic despair of the slouched model, or the identity of the flashlight-illuminated individuals. No longer does the landscape act as an exclamation mark for these figures. Depicting the skies over a number of cities and towns in Japan and Canada, each of the canvases of the Kara series measures 6 feet in height. The city scapes in each painting occupy less than 2 per cent of the paintings’ vertical height – a proportion of sky to land even more dramatic than in the earlier work. If you watch the reactions of viewers, the natural inclination is to approach each painting in a slight crouch, in an attempt to identify the depicted city scape. Once a landmark is identified and thus the city too, the spectator feels able to stand up straight and back up from the painting to take it in whole.
In the Kara series, questions of identity have shifted from individuals to cities and towns, but perhaps, like the head and shoulder’s portraits of Everybody Loves You which, after a time begin to seem less and less dissimilar, so too seem the cities of Osaka, Tokyo, Toronto and Ottawa when juxtaposed to the vastness of the sky above. The radical perspective of Takeya’s view of the cities which he visited and lived in, reminds one of looking at the earth from space, where countries and ethnicities and borders are invisible. When asked about the feelings behind these images, the artist responded, “I wanted to feel like air.”
The Kara series was originally painted in 2001 and 2002. Those paintings were tragically destroyed, and the current series of paintings is a recreation of the original, five years later. The discipline required to re-paint the entire series is a testament to the personal significance the works held for the artist. When asked about the inevitable difference between the paintings of five years ago and the contemporary recreations, the artist responded by saying that the current series is more colourful. This is not hard imagine when we look at the tonality of the city scape panels of the preceding Everybody Loves You series. In Kara, the sequel, Takeya’s work has opened up. The skies begin to be less leaden and more airy. A general greyness has given way to a luminous spectral range of colour ranging from sky blue to indigo, to pink and to orange. Emptiness, or Kara, at one time a burden for the Daisuke Takeya, has become a space of possibility.