In the wake of the Second World War, the revolution in painting – propelled by a move towards Abstract Expressionism by pioneers such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the West – saw a similar development on the other side of the world.
Exhibiting an intense dynamism, Sekito is a stunning example of Kazuo Shiraga's radical 'performance paintings'. A pivotal member of Japan's most remarkable avant-garde art collective – The Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association) – Shiraga's technique epitomises the group quest for a radical new artistic expression. Gutaï itself arose from another movement called Zerokaï and founded by Shiraga in 1952 with the aim of creating an art free of all intentions and conventions. The conjunction of gu (instrument) and taï (body), Gutaï praised the reconciliation between the body and matter, between the energy spent by the artist's action and the medium of its expression.
By placing his works flat on the floor and using his feet to spread thick layers of paint across the surface of the canvas in energetic gestural moves, Shiraga wanted to "paint as though rushing around on a battlefield, exerting" himself "to collapse from exhaustion" (Kazuo Shiraga quoted in: Exh. Cat., New York, McCaffrey Fine Art, Kazuo Shiraga, 2009, p. 59). The uninhibited action allowed the artist to fully immerse himself in the work, merging body with matter in a fluid, explosive, visceral synthesis.
Executed in 1979, Sekito, The Red Devil (or Red Hare) belongs to the corpus of works by Shiraga, known as the Ancient Chinese History Series. Sekito refers to an extaordinary horse owned by the warlord Lü Bu, who lived during the late Eastern Han dynasty of China. Sekito mentioned in Lü Bu's biographies in the historical texts Records of the Three Kingdoms was described as a super powerful animal "capable of travelling 1,000 li in a day. [...] crosses rivers and climbs mountains as though it is moving on flat land, [...]". After Lü Bu's downfall and death at the Battle of Xiapi, Sekito comes into the possession of Guan Yu the general who played a significant role in the events that led to the end of the dynasty and the establishment of the state of Shu Han in the Three Kingdoms period. It comes as no surprise that this story was a perfect inspiration for Shiraga.
The compositional complexity of Sekito continually fluctuates between rhythmic calligraphic sways and the disorganised chaos of unrestrained action painting. Sekito radiates with chromatic potency as sumptuous strokes intersect in a mesmerising dance. With its frenzied poetic chaos and vibrancy, the painting is an arresting vestige of the innovation that most defines Shiraga's unique visual language and artistic philosophy.
Like Yves Klein, who utilised naked women as 'human paintbrushes' in his Anthropométries of the late 1950s and 1960s, and Jackson Pollock, who showed a distinct interest in the expressive idiom of the radical Japanese artists, Shiraga developped such a visceral gestural language that his radical paintings stand as exceptional milestones in the history of twentieth-century art.
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