Retaining a ‘Japaneseness’ in Western style art

by Yuhei Wada

Staff Writer

In the past, there have been plenty of Japanese artists who have sought inspiration and studied overseas, but few who fully embraced their adopted land and became successful.

Muramasa Kudo is one of those artists fortunate enough to achieve enviable popularity outside of his native Japan. In 1980, aged 32, he moved to America — and he has lived abroad ever since. His colorful resume includes everything from race car driving to restaurant design. In Japan, however, his training was in traditional calligraphy.

When he moved to America, Kudo was one of the few artists who asserted a “Japaneseness” when most were focusing on developing and emulating Western techniques. It was that assertion and his ability to blend Japanese artistic techniques with a Western sensibility that made his work popular.

His delicately drawn and painted portraits of Asian women impressed both Japanese and American art collectors and won him the patronage of quite a few famous names, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton and film director Oliver Stone.

Kudo’s approach is not to depict the West from a foreigner’s perspective, nor use Western techniques to portray Japanese aesthetics. Instead, he uses fine, flowing lines, dynamic brushwork, decorative gold leaf and Japanese motifs to enhance the Western compositions of his work.

Now based in Los Angeles, Kudo continues this sense of reconstructing Japaneseness, and this exhibition, which the Reijinsha Gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza district has chosen to host as its inaugural show, chronicles Kudo’s decision to leave Japan, his success in America and his rise in the U.S. art scene.

A highlight of the show is “Umi no Megami” (“The Goddess of the Ocean”), a surfboard painted with a standing Buddha on one side and a silhouette of Japan surrounded by waves and held between two hands on the other — a piece he created last year as a part of a charity event to raise money for victims of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake.

“Muramasa Kudo Exhibition” at Reijinsha Gallery runs till Feb. 10; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; free admission. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.reijinsha.com/r-gallery.html