Oct 25 2017

Art Without Limits: Profile of Tsuyoshi Maekawa

by Julee WJ Chung

Portrait of TSUYOSHI MAEKAWA. Photo by Viktor Bentley. Courtesy the artist.

Unassuming and quiet by nature, Tsuyoshi Maekawa is as humble as he is prolific. “I’ve always wanted to create shapes that no one has seen before,” the artist said, smiling at the canvases hung at his first solo show at Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Hong Kong. “I have made paintings for a while now; although the peaks come in waves, I believe the present is the most intriguing time in my artistic career. I’m only getting started.”

As a young painter, Maekawa joined the Gutai Association in 1962 and soon became a core member of the second generation of Gutai artists, who made use of unconventional materials and tools to go beyond pure abstraction and pursue original creations that explored the relationship between body and matter. He embraced the ideas of his mentors, Jiro Yoshihara and Shozo Shimamoto. “They always wanted the group to keep experimenting and create something new,” he said, recalling what it was like to be working among radical, experimental creators. “I didn’t always follow what they said, but I believed their core idea: to always innovate. They respected that.” Over time, he found two close friends within the group—Takesada Matsutani and Shuji Mukai—who, like Maekawa, were among the youngest members of Gutai, and joined the collective in the early 1960s.

Born in Osaka in 1936, Maekawa led a tumultuous childhood that was wracked with uncertainties due to the ravages of war. It was during this time in the mid-1940s, that his art teacher showed him books of paintings by the likes of Joan Miró, Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso, opening his eyes to the freedom of expression that could be achieved through art. One of the most common materials accessible to the artist at the time was burlap, which was used by grocery stores to bag supplies such as rice. Fascinated by its coarse texture, and because of its ubiquity, Maekawa began to glue and sew the fabric onto his canvases. When asked about his tireless and inexhaustible use of the sackcloth—a material that he has been devoted to for the past three decades—the artist comments on how he is still drawn to the rough and simple quality of the fabric. Like a man obsessed, he rethinks the material again and again with each new work: “The material is my starting point.”

During his early years as an artist in the Gutai movement, Maekawa focused on challenging the limits of the two-dimensional plane by fusing textures and colors, dripping and splashing the paint onto the canvas’s surface. However, in the mid-1970s, soon after the Gutai Art Association dissolved following the death of their leader Yoshihara, Maekawa dialed back his explosive use of colors, paving the way for subdued paintings that required a more methodical play of materials, lines and shapes. When intimately combined, they brought out what the artist calls “a new depth within the canvas.” These subtler works, presented on Axel Vervoordt Gallery’s walls, show a watershed moment in the artist’s career that was perhaps influenced by the minimalist aesthetics of the concurrent modernist movement Mono-ha (“School of Things”), where Maekawa sought to identify the principle essence of his materials with fewer interventions and unembellished arrangements. Speaking to Maekawa today, the artist indicates that this period was an important juncture in his career that has guided his creations beyond Gutai’s aesthetic rules. Going forward, he wants to push himself to investigate the materials deeper through “simpler creations that have a larger presence.”

Installation view of TSUYOSHI MAEKAWA’s solo exhibition at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery.

TSUYOSHI MAEKAWA, Untitled, 1977, oil paint on hemp cloth and cotton, 162.1 × 130.3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong.

TSUYOSHI MAEKAWAUntitled, 1979, oil paint on sewn cotton cloth, 227.3 × 181.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong.

At Axel Vervoordt’s Hong Kong gallery, Maekawa’s untitled works from the late 1970s all use burlap, hemp cotton cloth and oil on canvases, and range from half a meter in height to over two meters tall. They are arguably the most minimal compositions in his oeuvre, but impart landscapes that are scaleless, and open otherworldly spaces that are undulating within their lines, shapes and brown gradient hues, relaying power within simple compositions. As a core member of one of Japan’s most radical post-war artistic collectives, he found healthy competition in his peers to create powerful abstract works that were limitless in their expression. Now at 81, the artist’s oeuvre is self-standing, in need of critique beyond his mid-century affiliations. Even the artist will not draw any conclusions about what he has accomplished so far, as he jovially points out: his journey is only beginning.

Julee WJ Chung is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor.

Tsuyoshi Maekawa’s exhibition is on view at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong, until November 7, 2017.

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