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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006

Teppei Ujiyama: Ad hoc accumulations create musical universes

Special to The Japan Times

While the exuberance of youth has played its part in countless artistic breakthroughs, the power of the midlife crisis should not be underestimated either, especially in a society where the wisdom or follies of age are afforded much more respect (or tolerance, as the case may be) than those of youth.

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Painter Teppey Ujiyama's "Kegon No. 11" (1979) COURTESY OF TAKAMATSU CITY MUSEUM OF ART

Such an awkward period of reflection and renewed experimentation is certainly evident in the career of Teppey Ujiyama (1910-86), an artist who finally evolved an abstract style that, some claim, has deep resonances with Buddhism.

For Ujiyama, whose work is now showing at one of my favorite stops, the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, the crisis came toward the end of World War II. No doubt that was partially due to the death of his 6-year-old daughter, killed in the U.S. targeting of civilians in cities such as Fukuoka, where he was living at the time. But a larger part was artistic, as he struggled to find a satisfactory means of expression.

In his youth, Ujiyama taught himself the techniques of woodblock printing, and succeeded in producing beautiful little works such as "Rural Train Station" (1930) and "Mackerel Sky" (1931) that were richly evocative of the countryside around his home town of Hita in Kyushu's Oita Prefecture. He also seemed comfortable working in oils to produce animist-infused Expressionist landscapes of the mountainous terrain of Kyushu's Kuju Highlands.

But with the end of the war, Ujiyama, like Japan itself, entered a period of deep uncertainty. His response was to question his art and -- according to art critic Seigow Matsuoka, who contributes an essay to the catalog -- to spend much of the next 15 years trying new styles. While this may be one of the longest midlife crises on record, Ujiyama didn't spend it buying Ferraris or chasing after young women. He merely struggled with his brushes, knives and canvases.

This is evident at the exhibition, with works that prompt comparisons with Paul Klee or Joan Miro, or others such as "Konin-period Buddha" (1957) that are clearly offshoots of Cubism. As the title of this latter work suggests, though, Ujiyama wasn't merely on an artistic quest. He was also on a spiritual one.

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Ujiyama's 1972 "Child Painting No. 260" and "Rural Train Station" (1930) (bottom) COURTESY OF OITA PREFECTURAL ART HALL
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The turning point, according to Matsuoka, was the painting "Stone Flower" (1960), executed as a tribute to his patron, Baron Shigetaro Fukushima, who had championed his art at the 1939 Kokugakai exhibition that established him as an artist. Matsuoka sees in this work -- which contrasts a delicate but glowing white flower with surrounding darkness -- the transition of the soul from Edo (the impure world) to Jodo (the pure land).

Different from all previous and all subsequent paintings, it stands as a convenient watershed, marking off Ujiyama's earlier stylistic wanderings from his mature style. From this point onward, his art becomes increasingly focused on brightly colored geometric shapes deployed around the canvas.

Based on the titles of many works, including the "Kegon" series painted in the 1970s and '80s, and Ujiyama's own statements, Matsuoka connects this development to Ujiyama's deep interest in the Kegon school of Buddhism. That school follows the precepts of the Avatamsaka, or "Garland Sutra," which teaches that the spiritual world and the material world are interfused, and that their manifestations are mutually identical.

In artistic terms, this can be taken to mean that the abstract and the figurative are one and the same, or that simple shapes and colors can symbolize or express complex realities. As with much Buddhist philosophy, Kegon Buddhism is an ideal philosophy for abstract art, as there is a strong strand of reductionism in which everything exists on an identical level.

An appreciation of this element of Ujiyama's art, nonetheless, requires more than a casual glance at his canvases. While he may have had the correspondence between the earthly and the spiritual clearly in mind as he painted, it is much harder for viewers to share it.

Sometimes the title gives a clue, as in "Memorial Flowers" (1982), where the name immediately suggests to us that the large black shapes are tombstones. Also there are certain visual motifs that recur, most notably the two dots and three whiskers that he uses to symbolize himself.

But, ultimately, Ujiyama's art defies comprehensive attempts at decoding, leaving us to take it on trust that this is the interdependent world of the spiritual and the material as outlined in the Garland Sutra.

When faced, as a critic, with any overelaborate explanation like this, my first reaction is to reach for Occam's razor, and look for simpler or more down-to-earth explanations. And when the average rationalist-materialist viewer such as myself encounters these paintings, the eye and mind initially strive to sort the visual data into unifying figurative patterns -- only to be repelled by the random, abstract elements.

In the absence of formal unity, the various elements of the paintings -- discrete shapes and colors, and beautiful surface textures -- start to speak up on their own; first one shape or color, and then another, fades in and out of focus. Inevitably, the temporal and physical spacing of these elements starts to build various visual melodies and rhythms in a haphazard and subjective way.

The tendency of the paintings to create this kind of visual polyphony, combined with highly suggestive titles like "Kegon" and "Endlessly, the Universe Interacts, Expands, and Flows" (1984), may have led sympathetic critics like Matsuoka to see in these works valid depictions of the essence of reality, and its supposedly deep spiritual interconnectivity and harmony.

But ultimately, these collections of shapes and colors strike me simply as charming ad hoc accumulations of discrete acts of painting, guided by aesthetic principles of balance and harmony, and suffused with the subjective emotions of the painter. And there's nothing wrong with that.

"Teppey Ujiyama 1910-1986: A Retrospective" is at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, 5-21-9, Shiroganedai, Minato-ku, Tokyo, till April 9; entrance 1000 yen, students 800 yen; open 10 a.m. To 6 p.m. (closed Wednesdays). For more information call (03) 3443-8500 or visit www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp

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