"My hands, trained to be omnipotent, engrave the images sent from my brains via the nerves on select materials." – Uemae Chiyu
Pulsing, Blazing Accumulation
Blazing with a singular scorching intensity, Untitled dates back to 1956, rendering it one of the earliest works from Uemae Chiyu – a founding member of Gutai whose importance deserves renewed international attention. The present work, with its densely built-up proliferation of short tight strokes of brilliant colour, exhibits Uemae’s extraordinary ground-breaking aesthetic of ishu or chumitsu – phrases that loosely describe the condition of thick or dense crowding (such as the density of hedgehog spines or growths of rice plants). Such an aesthetic finds a lineage in artists such as Kusama Yayoi, Mark Tobey, Zoltan Kemeny, and Erro, etc., whose works are concerned with the aesthetics of accumulation. Uemae’s chumitsu works, however, which he began producing earlier than most of these artists, display a unique sensibility – one that is profoundly introspective, labour-intensive and ascetic, yet which brims with a rich incandescent presence reminiscent of pointillism or Vincent van Gogh’s paintings from his final years. At the International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai exhibition in 1958, one of Uemae’s paintings were hung between works by Yves Klein and Jean-Paul Riopelle and later purchased by prominent British collector Anthony Denney; on another occasion, influential French critic Michel Tapie showered praise on Uemae’s pointillist paintings – a testament to their pioneering innovation and historical significance.
Compared with his fellow first-generation Gutai artists who favoured explosive, expressionist and performative action-painting works, Uemae’s quieter, more labour-intensive methods involved patient and painstaking effort. In the current lot, an early and archetypal specimen of his acclaimed pointillist works, Uemae built compact layers of colour using rich, warm hues of red, orange and yellow strokes that cut across a sea of blues and greens. The technique is laborious and meticulous, involving him piling up layers of paint in short dense strokes, with a particular emphasis on the focused and deft application of each stroke. The result of a process of accretion, the work reveals a persistence of time and dedicated activity imbued with a unique visual presence. The foundation of Uemae’s work is built upon strenuous toil; he describes the effort he exerts into his paintings to be so taxing to the extent he “invests a piece of [his] spirit in them, shortening [his] life so that the work may live”. Critic Kato Yoshio writes: “Compared with the other [Gutai] artists’ impulsive behaviour, [Uemae’s] dense labour-intensive accumulation of particles into hundreds and thousands has an abstemious sensibility […] the core of which could be described as his personal expression of individual freedom” (cited in Kato Yoshio, ‘A Spirit that Rang with the Tumult of an Era: The Life and Work of Chiyu Uemae’, in The World of Chiyu Uemae, Tokyo, 2013).
The extraordinary pulsing, vivid aesthetic of the present lot, as with works from Uemae’s entire career, is inspired by his extended years working at a steel casting factory. Uemae writes: “I will never forget the boiling, seething molten iron, and the way that it glowed in the crane before streaming down into the mold […] The entire facility was like an exquisite magical city” (the artist cited in Chiyu Uemae: A Solitary Path, Hong Kong, 2015, p. 76). He recounts being fascinated and hypnotized while watching severed steel fall into a cooling chute, “bursting into cascades of sparks” and turning into “one long strip of glowing light” before disappearing into dark water. He recalls: “These environments and settings, as well as the materials that I encountered at these factories, became the basis for my work” (The World of Chiyu Uemae, Tokyo, 2013). The throbbing energy of such industrial imagery is evoked and recreated in his paintings, demonstrated by the ephemeral strokes applied over and over in his work. Perhaps more so than any other Gutai artist, Uemae’s paintings demonstrate a profound understanding of and devotion to material – the one true ode to the Gutai spirit of imparting life and human spirit into matter. The academic Motoe Kunio writes, commenting on Uemae’s art: “Here, then, is a remarkable fusion and synthesis between the brain (intellect) and the hand (sensation). How is it that we managed to overlook an artist of such singular talent and incomparable stature up until now?” (Ibid.)
Uemae was one of the few members who remained in the Gutai association until its disbandment in 1972, and throughout his career Uemae continued to explore the limits of his medium, steadily developing his artistic style and refining his technique. His earlier works progressed into oil paintings with a variation of longer brushstrokes. He experimented with sawdust, matchsticks and freestanding sculpture; and in the 1980s Uemae began making works using fabric and thread, involving minimalistic patterns with a tranquil, almost spiritual experience. The use of non-traditional material can be understood as an enduring interest in constructing captivating material presence; in the 1990s the artist began to work with reproducible media such as silkscreen and woodblock printing. All this time, Uemae remained true to his pure, almost religious-like engagement with his chosen materials – a personal artistic choice that brings his oeuvre closer, perhaps, to minimalism and monochrome art. As Kato observes: “[Uemae’s] journey from abstract expressionism to a place resembling minimalism while still in the 1950s speaks to a profound understanding of his moment in history. Uemae’s link to global cultural changes is striking for the ability to channel his present and simultaneously anticipate future developments” (Ibid.).