Sometimes an artist may find inspiration in that ineffable zone where, as the French existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir once observed, “things of the spirit come first.” Sometimes, too, the most evocative art can emerge from the depths of another endlessly abundant, more fugitive source. That, of course, is memory — that repository of images, experiences and emotions we all possess, in which the past endlessly shifts shape and meaning.
Memory has been a potent force in the work of the Japanese modern artist Akira Shimizu, who was born in 1938 in Toyama, a coastal city in west-central Japan. Currently he is presenting his first-ever U.S. exhibition, a kind of abbreviated career survey, at Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York (through June 28).
Now based in Saitama, just north of Tokyo, Shimizu has never forgotten his hardscrabble childhood near the Sea of Japan, whose roaring waters, he recalls, could be heard in the wintry darkness as the members of many a hungry family tucked themselves in for the night. References to the sea are common in his work. (In fact, his surname even means “clean water.”)
Fishing has long played a prominent role in the Toyama region’s economic and cultural life, and for the artist, its boats, fishmongers and life-nurturing harvests provided a lasting influence on his worldview and his art. So did his childhood experiences during World War II. A horrific episode of that era occurred in August 1945, when American aircraft dropped incendiary bombs on Toyama. They almost completely destroyed his hometown.
The war years and their immediate aftermath were a time of hardship for many families in Shimizu’s native region, and in one recollection he often shares with visitors and interviewers, as a young boy he would stop by fish-sellers’ stalls in Toyama, where he sank his little hands into the mouths of buri (yellowtail) and extract sardines that had gotten stuck inside. “The buri’s sharp teeth would scratch my hands as I pulled them out,” he told the curator Itaru Hirano in 2012 on the occasion of a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in Saitama. The interview was published in Japanese in that exhibition’s catalog. Shimizu told Hirano, “I would take the buri home to my mother, who would use them to make surumi.” (In Japanese cooking, surumi, or fish balls, are often added to soups or grilled on skewers.)
In a recent e-mail exchange, Shimizu told me that, in those years, “there was so little food that three households had to share a single cucumber.” At school, he recalled, “we made ‘grass bread.’”
Shimizu’s father ran a drugstore and cut hair; he died when Akira was five years old. (As with fish, it is no accident that barber’s shears appear repeatedly in Shimizu’s collages.) Years later, in 1958, Shimizu graduated from Kanazawa College of Art in Kanazawa, a coastal city southwest of Toyama. Heading north to postwar Tokyo, which was rebuilding at a rapid pace, he found work at factories that did manufacturing jobs for larger firms.
In his spare time, he visited contemporary art galleries in the capital to keep up with developments in the Japanese avant-garde. Later he met and became friendly with some of the artists who were leading the creative charge. Among them was Natsuyuki Nakanishi, who also has a solo show — of light-colored, oil-on-canvas abstract paintings — on view right now in New York, at McCaffrey Fine Art, through July 11.
By 1962, Shimizu had begun presenting his work in the annual “Yomiuri Independent” exhibition, a high-profile showcase for up-and-coming talents sponsored by one of Japan’s national newspapers. That same year, he had a debut solo show at Tokyo’s Muramatsu Gallery, where he displayed a mixed-media work incorporating printed maps; assemblage sculptures made with assorted industrial parts and metal scraps; and collages with photographic components.
Later, he created diverse groups of works, including his Guidebook (1962-1972) series of collages that made use of topographic maps of Japan as their surfaces and cutouts of female forms from old, black-and-white girlie sheets; his pop-flavored Colorblindness Tests (1960s), painting-collages made with cutouts from pinup magazines; and his remarkable full-color Menuma series of collages (begun in the 1970s), in which women in elegant kimono combine and cavort with insects, birds, fish, mushroom clouds and legions of shiny scissors in unlikely compositions that are as mysterious as they are compelling.
Shimizu made the first of these works for a book in collaboration with the famed choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986), the founder of butoh, a haunting form of emotionally expressionistic, psychologically and sexually charged modern dance. Shimizu has also made mixed-media assemblage sculptures (1980s-1990s), a few of which are on view at Pavel Zoubok, ranging from small, wall-mounted talisman-like bundles of wire and spiky metal to larger pieces that suggest spacecraft or architectural structures from some futuristic world.
The artist explained at the recent opening of his New York show, which he had traveled from his home in Japan to attend, that all of his creations have been inspired by what he has personally seen or experienced, from the sea creatures to the metal scraps of the industrial zones where he worked during his early period in Tokyo.
In this way, Shimizu noted, looking back, especially to his childhood years, “the fundamental scaffolding of my way of making art and of my thinking has been based on the circumstances I lived through and survived.” Emphatically, he adds, his work is not surrealist. It is not an attempt to record or emulate dreams, to plumb the depths of the psyche or to engage in impulsive, “automatic” art-making.
Meanwhile, in a concurrent, shorter-running, two-person exhibition now on view at Art Space Hane, Shimizu’s regular gallery in Tokyo, he is presenting a few mixed-media sketches on paper of abstract shapes, some flecked with color or featuring hand-drawn elements like eyeballs, insects or the outline of a pair of scissors. At the opening of this show last Sunday, Shimizu told me that these drawings might later evolve into new sculptures. Shimizu’s work is being shown alongside that of his late wife, Toyoko Shimizu, whom he met at art school in the late 1950s and who died last year. Primarily a maker of translucently painted oil-on-canvas or watercolor-on-paper abstractions, Toyoko Shimizu was also an art educator and an accomplished writer of haiku verse.
On the occasion of this exhibition, a limited-edition book of Toyoko Shimizu’s nuance-packed haiku titled Shagekion (“The Sound of Fire,” referring to gunshot) has been published. “A ribbon tying up white hair; a new looking-glass,” reads one of her untitled verses. Another states, “Things showing transparently through bones: a lot of grass and autumn leaves.” In the Shimizus’ two-artist show, timed to coincide with Akira’s Pavel Zoubok presentation in New York, the collagist and sculptor’s work takes a back seat to his late wife’s oeuvre. The exhibition offers an homage to Toyoko’s creative spirit.
The history of modern art in Japan, which dates back to the latter part of the 19th century, is filled with coteries of like-minded artists who shared art-making techniques or aesthetic outlooks. They would work in formally established groups, such as the post-World War II avant-garde Gutai group, or take part in more loosely associated movements. Throughout his career, however, Akira Shimizu has been something of a loner in his homeland’s decidedly group-oriented society.
In that respect, he has approached his art-making in keeping with modernism’s traditional emphasis on innovative individualists, but in a Japanese context, it means that he has been something of an oddity, neither a follower nor an active member of any artists’ group. Unlike some modernists of Shimizu’s generation who jumped ship, headed overseas and never moved back to Japan — like the Brooklyn-based painter-sculptor Ushio Shinohara, who happens to be one of his old pals — Akira stayed in Japan and stuck it out as the loner that he is, despite the relatively small market for modern art he encountered in past decades and the lack of the genuine appreciation of modern art that characterized the Japanese cultural scene during the heyday of his career.
Also interesting is that fact that, as inventive as some Japanese modernists have been in, say, the field of print-making and the graphic arts, there are very few for whom collage has been a main mode of expression and field of experimentation.
In an e-mail exchange we conducted shortly before the artist arrived in New York for his Pavel Zoubok opening, Shimizu summarized his creative approach in a few words as that of someone who routinely “moves from the light to the dark, and from the dark to the light.” That is, of course, a vivid description of anyone’s activity when fishing in the deep waters of memory. To give it a form that teases the mind and provokes the spirit is to create what we call art.
Akira Shimizu: Scattering Scale continues at Pavel Zoubok Gallery (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 28.