A contemporary mix of nihonga and manga

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Nobuya Hoki’s work oscillates between two of the major trends in Japanese contemporary art since the 1990s: manga-inspired themes and the revival of nihonga (Japanese-style painting). His own painting practice is termed “double-line painting” — which in Japanese also reads as “ni-hon ga” — owing to a specially constructed double brush that he uses, and his manga is of an altogether childish bent though abstracted enough to obscure any narrative specificity.

One work, for example, depicts a large cannibalistic bear eating one its own kind and then defecating another. Another appears to portray two rounded cutesy characters, the large one on the left with its mouth agape and somewhat reminiscent of the character Dokkin-chan from the cartoon Anpan-man, and the lower figure on the right looking rather more perturbed.

It appears that Hoki’s formative years as an artist included artistic and childhood influences. In addition to manga that reveals itself in Hoki’s elegant scrawl, this would include his fascination with the Edo Period (1603-1867) painter Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), a “Japanese-style” painter established well before the “birth” of nihonga in the final decades of the 19th century. Beholden, Hoki exhibits a work based upon Jakuchu’s taku hanga (rubbing prints).

Childhood reminiscences also surface through Hoki’s emphasis on the essentials of figuration and abstraction, such as his combination of drawing and painting, and also dots and lines. The dots are a relatively new artistic direction that Hoki assembles into linear, perambulating configurations in a restricted palette of purple, blue and reddish hues. This conjures up memories of connect-the-dot coloring books that gradually reveal figurative images when their dots are joined one by one. The finished pictures, however, are always somewhat incoherent, because on viewing, the unified lines often break back down into the constituents that add up to the whole. The back and forth between the discernment of linear figuration and abstraction, discrete and continuous, is part of Hoki’s forte.

A further, relatively new, element in Hoki’s oeuvre is his use of smearing, which also carries a linear quality in the directional wiping away of paint, the traces of which remain behind. Other new works, such as his 2011 piece in Indian ink, bring to the fore convulsing shallow spaces of linearity for which Hoki is known. Here, the smudgy ink stain is suggestive of nijimi, the Japanese art of bleeding ink through silk, satin or paper.

Given that Hoki usually works in oil paints or marker pen on aluminum or canvas, however, his blur is a surface effect and not the permeation of pigment into canvas.

In many ways, however, this new painterly blur is a recent evolution of the double-vision effect of the crisply graphic and paired colored lines of Hoki’s current and earlier works; though, for the most part, the smears are restricted to purples on white.

The subtle shifts in Hoki’s painting directions and his resistance to settle on a stylistic “brand” make him one of the most engaging painters working today.

“Nobuya Hoki” at Taka Ishii Gallery, Kyoto, runs till Feb. 25; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun., Mon. www.takaishiigallery.com.