Born in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture in 1954, Naoki Suwa began his career as a painter in the mid-1970s. At that time, it seemed that developments associated with the Mono-ha movement, Conceptual Art, and Minimal Art had so thoroughly revised notions of art that the contemporary Japanese art scene had returned to “degree zero.” Whether or not these developments were based upon the logic of modernism is another question, but in any case, one effect of these changes was the spreading notion that products of the artistic process were going to lose their ability to speak for themselves. To combat this possible scenario, a significant number of artists, confronted by materials that were both silent and full of historical connotations at once, for instance, canvases painted with flat, white backgrounds, proceeded to produce art with the aid of “deductive” reasoning, which took the shape and structure of the materials themselves as a starting point for their projects.
Early works by Suwa, such as the series Garrulous Plane [1976-77, cat. nos. 1-3], show that he started his career by painting papers or canvases with pointillist dots of color. In the series IN-CIRCLE [1977, cat. nos. 2, 3], one can discern the desire to try to extend the work beyond the frame of the support itself. The irregularly shaped canvases of the series The Alpha and the Omega [1978, cat. nos. 4-6] stand in contrast to the square frames that form the borders of most canvases.
In the latter half of the series The Alpha and the Omega [1979, cat.nos.7-9], Suwa started employing brighter colors and an increasingly fluid and vibrant touch. In the series Waves [1980, cat.nos.10, 11], the works are painted on screens that do not hang directly upon the walls of the exhibition space but stand in the space itself. The folding screens of Waves and other works [1980, cat. nos. 12-14; 1987, cat. nos. 26, 27; and 1990, cat. no. 30], the single-leaf screens of Mountain and Stream with Sun and Moon in which paint is applied to both sides of the canvas [1982, cat. nos. 15, 16], and subsequent works done on hanging scrolls [1983-86, cat.nos.17, 18, 22-25] all employ formats used in traditional East Asian paintings instead of the institutionalized practice of easel painting which dominates the artistic culture of the modern West. The use of these formats, however, did not represent a return to traditionalism, but instead highlighted the historicity of practices of painting in Japan. Suwa was acutely aware that his position as an artist was profoundly implicated in the history of modernism, and he felt it necessary to work in the narrow corridor between the eroding forces of modernism and the traditional heritage of Japan. In short, Suwa drew upon two artistic traditions that treated one another as antithetical.
Through these artistic explorations, Suwa arrived at the point from which he created his last major works, the series Endless Chain Paintings [1988-90, cat. nos. 28, 29, 31], which though designed to consist of 50 panels, was never completed due to Suwa’s premature death. In each panel, strokes develop from left to right (in a direction opposite that of Japanese script or scrolls which moved from right to left). These strokes do not represent figurative motifs but the chaotic forces of nature. Through the interplay of traditional motives of ornament and gold leaves, they diffuse into darkness and open into the space outside the frame of the work. The gazes of viewers are not contained within the boundaries of the limited frame, but slide obliquely outside of the space, propelled by the limitless movement of the strokes inside.
Suwa died in a boating accident in 1990 at the age of 36, cutting his artistic quest prematurely short. Current trends in art have made it clear that the development of computer media cannot help but highlight the relative, historical conventions and positions of painting, sculpture or any another form of what is usually known as “high art.” For this reason, Suwa’s attempts to reconstruct painting in a way that underscores its historical conventions and practices might be worth reconsidering now.
This exhibition traces the development of the ideas behind Suwa's work. In bringing together this exhibition, our museum has received generous cooperation from numerous other museums and private collectors who have permitted us to display works from their valuable collections. We would like to express our deep gratitude to them.
Mie Prefectural Art Museum
Cultural Foundation of Okada