"Every human being is born and given life for the purpose of putting their own stamp on the world, and on history. Every artist, I believe, must by nature be a pioneer." – Maekawa Tsuyoshi
The Scream of Burlap
Monumental in size and brilliantly arresting in colour, form and tactility, Untitled is a striking, fiercely assertive masterpiece hailing from Maekawa Tsuyoshi’s early Gutai years. Executed in 1962, the painting was featured in the seminal opening exhibition of the Gutai Pinacotheca in Osaka in that same year – a testament to its exceptionally outstanding quality and historical significance within the legendary history of Gutai. A second-generation Gutai artist, Maekawa quickly became one of Gutai leader Yoshihara Jiro’s favorite protégés among the younger members of the group. In 1959, even before he officially joined as a Gutai member, Maekawa exhibited at the 8th Gutai exhibition at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. Yoshihara was deeply impressed by Maekawa’s highly distinctive and unique works, which utilizes woven burlap (coarse jute bags) as medium to achieve a powerful visceral materiality. In 1963, the young Maekawa was honoured with a solo exhibition at the Pinacotheca. While the rest of the Gutai artists, particularly the first-generation members, developed a strong inclination towards the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism, Maekawa was more focused on the material presence of his creations.
The most idiosyncratic feature of Maekawa’s work is his use of burlap – a stylistic and conceptual emphasis on materiality in painting that predates the rise of Informel in Japan. Maekawa’s unique approach involves him weaving and gluing spiral-shaped pleats of burlap that jut out, at once organically and architecturally, creating curving pockets and lines reminiscent of the patterns in ancient Jomon earthenware. The artist then splashes, pours or paints oil or coloured enamel paint onto the stitched and textured surface, creating rich and vibrantly dynamic compositions. Combined with the coarse texture of the burlap material, the resulting effect exudes a raw, primitive sense of power along with a paradoxical luxurious sense of graceful regality. Heterogeneous and metamorphic, Maekawa’s thriving surfaces allowing the radically objective nature of paint and material to emerge in all its strangeness, and in so doing evoking a noble, surreal yet magnificent beauty. Such an artistic practice ignited immediate access to the raw power of matter – to the artwork as ‘thing’ rather than as image.
While Maekawa’s burlap works can be positioned within a lineage of paintings created using unconventional materials belonging to Alberto Burri, Paul Klee and Joan Miro, they also constitute a unique and highly independent investigation into abstract and biomorphic texture. Burri also stuck burnt and ripped scraps of cloth onto his canvas; however, Maekawa’s elaborate method of cutting, folding and sewing brought to life the unique sculptural quality and expressive potential of cloth and fabric, coaxing out an extraordinary sense of authority and structural eloquence. Positioned at the liminal spaces between abstraction and figuration, painting and sculpture, Maekawa’s paintings contain traces of nature such as branches, leaves and water currents, as well as cultural iconographic signs like crosses, columns and grids. Yuling Wang writes: “If we imagine looking at the works from a birds-eye view, the burlap bumps resemble topographical lines, all kinds of fields, [or] the Nazca Lines, or fingerprints” (Yuling Wang, “The Paintings of Tsuyoshi Maekawa: Gutai and Beyond”, in Exh. Cat. Tsuyoshi Maekawa: Energy Extortionist, 2015, p. 8). With its intuitive lines and expressive relief-like textures, Maekawa’s works overcome not just the flatness of the canvas but also its inertia, achieving a new painting space that gives life to and transcends the limits of the medium.
Color also plays an important role in Maekawa’s oeuvre. The myriad of rich earthy hues are often delivered by staining, dripping or splashing in a physical, Pollock-esque method, resulting in poured color fields that allow the pigment to flow, expand and swell organically into the spaces between the bumps and crevices. With Maekawa, however, color never overpowers the background texture or skeletal structure of the lines, but rather complements and emphasizes the versatile and visceral materiality of burlap. Such a trust in the inherent power, beauty and tenacity of material fully allows nature’s inherent rhythms to pulse through, conveying a sense of timeless dynamic vitality. Maekawa used burlap throughout his career, manipulating them into intuitive and commanding compositions that never diminish in their visual and visceral confrontations to the viewer. Striking and seductive, yet verging on the grotesque, Maekawa’s writhing extortionist aesthetic offers not easy soft harmony but the terrible beauty of matter itself, an ode to the true legendary Gutai spirit in post-war Japanese art.