“T he object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity,” Alberto Giacometti once said. There is something about Japanese artist Izumi Kato's oeuvre that perfectly exemplifies Giacometti's quote, leading the observer into a neverland full of humanoid creatures with alien features, who, even, and especially, with their distorted guises, exude a fantastical spirit that is equal parts terrestrial and celestial. The artist’s largest-ever single canvas at auction to date, Untitled (2012), will soon go under the hammer at the upcoming Hong Kong Spring Auctions.
“I can paint all kinds of animals–dogs, cats, even flowers; but the human figure remains the biggest challenge for the viewer to interpret. It is what motivates and inspires me to paint. If I lost that enthusiasm, I think I would stop painting.”
Kato's paintings, drawings, textiles, and sculptures, which range from petite floor-standing pieces to larger-than-life installations, hold an otherworldly mirror to the stages of animistic evolution: foetuses with sylphlike appendages, children with amorphous faces, and anonymous ghostly spirits that riff on primitive art. His totem-like manifestations serve as leitmotifs across his paintings and sculptures, differing only in colour and scale, while remaining true to his reality-eluding signature. Crucially, Kato eschews traditional tools, including the paintbrush, instead using his hands to dapple colours onto his canvas in the way of dots and lines. His technique is almost primal, bearing a likeness to cave paintings, while also recalling the figuration of Francis Bacon, as well as the style of Gutai artists.
Perhaps his intrepid approach is a reflection of his relatively late foray into the art world, having graduated from the Department of Oil Painting at Musashino University in 1992 and releasing his maiden opus at the age of 30 in 1999. In the same vein, Kato has resisted attempts at demystifying his work in interviews, insisting that the observer be given carte blanche to interpret the portrayal in their own way.
Born and raised in the seaside district of Shimane, Japan, Kato’s figurative-meets-folk aesthetic alludes to the traditional Japanese Shinto ethos of animism, or the inhabitance of a spirit in inanimate objects and nature. Perhaps this is why Kato’s figures are languid and illusory, summoning the beholder into an inner world where vulnerability runs deep and there are secret stories waiting to be told.
In a 2017 interview, when asked about his influences, Kato was quick to answer: “Everything I come in contact with while living.” His disinclination at crediting a single source was rooted in a greater purpose–of making his entire life his muse. “I admire so many artists that I can’t even begin to answer, but I always cite [Vincent] van Gogh, Francis Bacon, and Ito Jakuchu Ito as examples,” he noted.
Notable Auction Records of Izumi Kato
Despite the artist’s continually evolving practice, he has admitted to a singular devotion to painting, one that often supersedes other mediums. “I am most interested in painting, and to master it, I am working with various mediums such as sculptures and textiles. I will never stop creating paintings, but I may stop creating wooden sculptures, soft vinyl figures, fabrics, stones, and some other materials in the future if I no longer need them. Painting is difficult and challenging for me. On the other hand, I enjoy working on sculptures,” he revealed.
In Untitled, the protagonist is incarnated in a foetal form, with saucer-like eyes and acid green features. The figure is trapped inside a void, or perhaps an amniotic sac, leaving the observer to decipher the way in. The atmosphere, conjured up in painterly beams of colour, is fathomless, amplified all the more by a canvas that measures a kingly 180 x 250 cm, a rarity for Kato’s mid-sized archetype. The painting is also fresh to auction, having been acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, and never having changed hands or collections before. In the past two years, Kato has received renewed interest from discerning art buyers and collectors, and cemented his top five auction records in 2021 alone. He has exhibited in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Mexico City and Hong Kong, and his work features in the collections of the Colección SOLO, Madrid; the Hara Museum ARC, Tokyo; The Long Museum, Shanghai; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, amongst others.