A colorful realm of the senses

by Victoria James

“I do not believe in imitation,” says Kazi Ghiyasuddin. “When I see something, my senses react. I want to portray that reaction through colors.”

The 53-year-old artist is sitting in his kitchen in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, the room a riot of color. Paintings cover every available surface, lying flat on the dining table, propped up on the dresser and leaned against the cooker.

“My supervisor at the Geidai [Tokyo University of Fine Arts], Gyoji Nomiyama, told me ‘Your watercolor work is extraordinary. You must continue in this vein,’ ” recalls Ghiyasuddin.

That was back in the early 1980s, when the Bangladesh-born Ghiyasuddin was the Geidai’s first foreign Ph.D. student. He’s been based in Japan since 1975, when he arrived as a Monbusho scholar to pursue an M.A. in Education, and has had more than 40 solo exhibitions in this country.

We’re sat around the table looking at Ghiyasuddin’s most recent work because he’s trying to select pieces for his latest exhibition, opening May 6 at the Miyuki Gallery in Ginza.

“It’s always so hard,” he says, shaking his head. “I select the pieces then, you know, it takes me a week in the gallery to work out where to hang them.”

The final selection of 21 works is more than two-thirds comprised of oil paintings — unusual for Ghiyasuddin, who works principally in watercolor. However, visitors who saw his 2001 and 2002 exhibitions of watercolors in Tokyo, including one at the Miyuki, may feel a sense of deja vu.

“Yes, they are the same paintings as some of those watercolors,” explains the artist, “but in oil and, you know . . . different.”

He’s right. Ghiyasuddin’s watercolors are ethereal yet intense, an effect he achieves by applying up to five layers of color, thus preserving the almost magical insubstantiality of the medium while creating powerful pigmentation.

The oils in this latest series are likewise layered, with the artist returning to the works intermittently over the course of two or more years. They follow the same proportions as the watercolors, and have the same titles — but there the resemblance ends.

“I’m playing with the medium,” he says. “I’m not concerned with the image, or with ‘meaning,’ I’m just free to paint, to explore the color.”

Ghiyasuddin will be showing the oil pieces independently of their watercolor prototypes, but his admirers will instantly recognize his hallmark style and sensuality.

“I sold so much during the bubble years,” he says, laughing. “Financial resources gave people a great deal of freedom. Collectors today are much more discriminating.”

And, yes, he still sells to the discriminating.

“But I am happy to work, you know,” he says. “Not to be too famous — famous is dangerous. But to do this.”