MAKOTO FUJIMURA Golden Sea
by Margaret Graham
DILLON GALLERY | MAY 9 – JUNE 8, 2013
Makoto Fujimura’s recent paintings exist on the cusp of paradox, visually collapsing the arc between macro and micro, the celestial and the terrestrial, the corporeal and the ephemeral, destruction and rebirth, tradition and innovation. For the past three decades, Fujimura has religiously revisited these and other binaries, searching for the aesthetic language to voice and resolve them. Process has proved to be an important part of this task: his art is a novel combination of traditional Japanese Nihonga technique—in which the artist takes ground-up minerals and applies them with hide glue, layer upon layer, to paper or canvas—with the visual cues and content of Western modernism. The resulting images are immersive and highly lyrical but carefully controlled, abstractions riddled with literary allusions, internal dilemmas, and phenomenological queries. Their surfaces are splendid but often difficult to get inside. As such, Fujimura is like the T. S. Eliot of contemporary painting, creating art as a response to tragedy and leaving it at the altar of humanity in the hope that it might provide beauty and consolation in the midst of devastation, sorrow, loss, and decay.
Much in the same way that Eliot’s The Waste Land is understood as an oblique yet poignant response to the disenchantment and alienation that plagued Europe in the wake of World War I, the works on view in Golden Sea can be understood as Fujimura’s meditative rejoinder to both the disastrous tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011 and Hurricane Sandy (which coincidentally struck just days before the artist’s show was originally slated to open at Dillon Gallery). The show revolves around its central subject, that of the awesome and awful power of water, with a certain muted fury, each piece drawing upon erudite references and the artist’s personal experiences in an attempt to strike a balance between water’s cleansing and calming qualities and the horrible havoc it can wreak on a single psyche, a family, a city, or an entire civilization.
The three large and admirably raw works that comprise Fujimura’s “Walking on Water” (2012) series are particularly effective. “Banquo’s Dream”—named for the prophetic vision that spares the noble foil of Shakespeare’s Macbeth—is all sandy grit and white wisps of vapor anchored by a rag tag assembly of drifting golden squares; it feels unsure but right, pleasantly undecided, or “open” as the artist described it. “Waves” offers a smeared, aqueous glimpse of deep blue cosmos that drags its breakers across a blissful swath of negative space. Up close, however, it becomes clear that Fujimura has considered William Blake’s summons “to see a world in a grain of sand”; one can discern the rough texture and slight glint cast by light refracting off each individual granule of pigment, crossing and compounding what lies on either side of the fine line between heaven and earth.
“Flight” is without a doubt the crown jewel of the trio: the image is absorptive and deeply psychological, composed of an immense slate grey canvas on which an azure and navy apparition hovers alongside a barely discernable strip of dusty green and a tiny starburst of golden yellow. Floating side-by-side, these three spectral non-entities struggle for existence amongst each other and against the dense background that threatens to snuff them out. This image embodies nothing less (or more) than a single emotion felt in a single moment of time—whether that emotion is boundless faith or ardent despair is impossible to tell. The uncertainty is thrilling. Imbued with all the gravitas of a Rothko and the subtle metallic salvo of a Pat Steir, this piece is an exquisite example of the uncompromisingly successful outcome of Fujimura’s intrepid impulse to push his work into arcane and daunting territory.
For a body of work that is so intensely saturated with spiritual quandaries and grave intellectualism, Fujimura’s paintings are surprisingly lithe and easy to look at. His palette is restricted mostly to neutral tones, shades of blue, and pure, bright gold with splashes of softened technicolor. In the show’s title piece, “Golden Sea” (2011), a textured ground of cerulean, black, turquoise, and dusty rose is filtered through a veil of erratic gold tiles which harken back to those seen in Japanese byobu and Renaissance triptychs. Yet unlike their traditional predecessors, Fujimura’s surfaces are far from pristine; rather, they are scumbled and full of holes, mercurial and fraught but still lovely, like sunlight reflecting off tumultuous surf. One of Fujimura’s great strengths—in this painting and in others such as “Golden Sea Ruby” (2013)— is that he has not only made a referential use of gold feel innovative, but that he has retained the metal’s richness while simultaneously showing us just how earthly, and how disarmingly human, it can be. This is not the gold of royal bling but rather that of a careworn chalice, combining the pathos of an ancient utensil with the intensity of the hieratic rite.
The smaller “sketches” on view in the project room of the gallery are, unfortunately, less engaging. Works such as “Golden Sky” (2013) and “Golden Psalm” (2013) feel too laborious and too neatly tied-up; they lack the openness and imperfection found in Fujimura’s other pieces, and as such fail to fully engage the viewer. Fujimura’s most successful paintings are those in which he embraces the longing and fear that accompany the search for resolution. In such pieces, to borrow the apt words of Eliot, there is “an easy commerce of the old and the new,” each form is “exact without vulgarity… precise but not pedantic, a complete consort dancing together.” Viewing them is an aesthetic experience not to be missed.