Friday, October 10, 2014

Facing Forward, Looking Back: Hisashi Tenmyouya’s 'Street-Samurai' Style

Detail of Tenmyouya's Rhyme.

Hisashi Tenmyouya is a man of many styles. He’s a rebel and an innovator, doing his best to express the diversity of Japanese culture through art.

“Japanese culture has been considered a world that is ascetic, static, simple, minimal, one of anime and manga," Tenmyouya said in an interview with Laura J. Mueller, who co-curated the exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab, opening today at Japan Society. "However, that is just one aspect of Japanese culture. It is more diverse. We treasure the sight of cherry blossoms falling from the tree. We amuse ourselves with fireworks exploding like flowers blooming in the sky. We enjoy festivals with elaborately designed floats moving down the street.”

Tenmyouya has invented several self-described styles in the years he's been making art. His Butō-ha (circa 2000) depicts resistance towards the authoritative art system. His Neo-Nihonga (2001) incorporates elements of traditional Japanese art (nihonga), while using contemporary art styles and modern art materials, such as acrylic paint. And most recently, Basara (2010) draws inspiration from the extraordinary beauty of past eras, including the woodblock print artists of the late Edo period (1615 – 1867), and the kabukimono (men, often samurai, who dressed and acted flamboyantly) of the late Sengoku era (mid-15th to late 16th centuries).

“My manifesto, Basara, is based on the subculture of the ‘street-samurai culture’ that is excessively decorative and imbued with a rebellious spirit that defies traditional values. Basara stands for anti-authority and anti-aristocratic culture, which is derived from samurai culture on the streets. Basara represents a counter to the traditional values of wabi, sabi, Zen, and otaku,” he said.

Still, even across multiple styles, there are some common themes to be found in Tenmyouya’s work. His paintings tend to depict subjects that are in direct contrast with each other.

His 2002 work Neo Thousand-Armed Kannon presents Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, with her many arms holding machine guns, army knives and pistols. The piece examines the state of the world in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the U.S., highlighting the close relationship between violence and faith despite their opposite natures.

These contrasts are not always so serious, however. He also created a poster for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, appropriately titled Football, depicting two soccer players wearing samurai armor and decorative helmets in the midst of a battle for the ball - one player with his leg pulled back, ready to kick, and the other sliding towards him in an attempt to steal the ball away.

"[His] works exude an historic feel that is also wholly contemporary,” wrote Vicente Gutierrez in The Japan Times about Tenmyouya's Tokyo exhibition in 2009.

“Tenmyouya’s paintings of fantastic beasts and tattooed warriors are a record-album-cover designer’s version of Buddhist and Shinto religious icons,” wrote the The New York Times’ Holland Cotter, when Tenmyouya was featured in Japan Society's 2011 exhibition Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art.

Even though his solo exhibitions have mainly taken place in Tokyo, people from all around the world have been introduced to Tenmyouya’s unique style when his works have been showcased in places such as Berlin, Sydney and Singapore. He made his U.S. debut in 2002 in One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art at New York’s Bronx Museum.

He received more worldwide exposure with the 2006 video documentary Near Equal Tenmyouya Hisashi (released internationally as Hisashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouveau), in which director Go Ishizaki followed Tenmyouya as he worked on his paintings.



Japan Society’s Garden of Unearthly Delights features Tenmyouya’s first large-scale installation: a room adorned with several of his paintings, placed around a Zen garden with volcanic rocks and skulls planted in a sea of blood-red sand. One of the centerpieces of the room, his most recent work Rhyme, is a sizable painting which depicts yakuza-type men battling each other wearing nothing but fundoshi (ceremonial loincloths). While the subject matter is traditional, there is a sense of surrealism (a tiger and several horses wearing armor against a shimmering gold background), and the style is thought to be influenced by Leonardo de Vinci’s early-Renaissance The Battle of Angihari (1505).

It’s one of the many influences that contribute to Tenmyouya’s distinctive “street-samurai” style, in addition to his striking visual approach. His always-innovating, rebellious mindset makes each of his paintings more unpredictable than the last. With new styles, new ideas and new concepts, Hisashi Tenmyouya will be a fascinating artist to follow in the years to come.

--Mark Gallucci, additional reporting by Younjoo Sang


Images (top to bottom, left to right):  Hisashi Tenmyouya, (b. 1966), Rhyme (Detail), 2012. Acrylic paint, gold leaf on wood; inkjet print on paper, mounted on wood; each 49 7/8 x 118 1/8 in. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colonel Rex W. & Maxine Schuster Radsch Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.23.1-.2a-b.; Neo Thousand Armed Kannon, 2002. Acrylic, wood; 89 ½ x 68 5/16 in. Takahashi Collection, Tokyo. © Hisashi Tenmyouya, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery; Football, 2004, official poster selection of the 2006 World Cup in Germany; Neo Acalanatha (Detail), 2004. Acrylic, wood; 42 1/3 x 18 5/7 in. Collection of Katsura Yamaguchi. © Hisashi Tenmyouya, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery.

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