Painter Michael Hofmann says his best work starts and finishes before he’s even realized it.

“In my eyes, the work that’s most successful comes as a gift. I may not even know it’s coming, or it may happen when I’ve given up. Some paintings seem to have a life of their own: I was there, but . . . These I like to keep,” the San Francisco native says.

Three different groups of Hofmann’s works will be shown over the next six weeks at exhibits in Kyoto, Aichi and Osaka.

Hofmann first came to Japan in 1972, drawn here, he says, by providence and the lure of Zen Buddhism. Serendipity was at work: Upon his arrival, Hofmann was immediately introduced to nanga painting master Gyokusei Jikihara, who remains Hofmann’s teacher today, more than 25 years later.

Nanga is one of two schools of sumie, or ink painting: It derives from the Chinese nanzonghua (Southern school painting), also known as bunjinga (literati painting). The Chinese literati painters upheld an ideal of the scholar who pursues painting, poetry and calligraphy as an avocation, in opposition to the professional court academy painters. In Japan the bunjinga or nanga movement grew as part of the 18th-century Sinophile movement in art and literature, closely identified with the Obaku Zen sect, and was popular with those who admired the bunjin ideal and sought freedom from the official monopolies of the Kano and Tosa art schools.

In those early days in Kyoto, Hofmann threw himself into Zen practice, taking part in monthly sesshin, sitting meditation practice that lasted 14 hours a day for five days.

“In the beginning, the discipline I needed to paint really intensely, every day, was echoed in the sesshin,” he says.

Jikihara, his teacher, is also abbot of the Kokuseiji Zen temple on Awaji Island.

“His painting, his daily life was all an expression of his Zen practice,” Hofmann says. “Just being able to spend time with him, see how he answers the phone, speaks with guests, is a learning situation for me, even now.”

Zen insight provided essential personal groundwork for Hoffman’s painting. “In the West, the stress is on trying to create something individual and new, so it’s a little contrived. From my teacher’s point of view, if you paint sincerely, your paintings will be unique because they’ll be expressing something unique to you,” he explains.

“So all you have to do is be honest. The less you’re consciously involved in manipulating, the better the chance that something important will be expressed. I think in essence it is a very personal, spiritual art — it should tap into something fairly deep.”

With Hofmann, one gets the impression that the painter is just a vehicle through which the painting comes, no different from brush or pigment.

“Sometimes late at night I’ll just start with a gesture; the movement itself isn’t even considered. I try to let the painting tell its own story, so that little by little something’s started. Already there is a dynamic intrinsic to the painting itself, there are relationships, a mood starts to develop. Different things come into play, like aesthetics and a sense of harmony,” he says.

In line with the nanga tradition, Hofmann’s works often employ nature as a departure point. The dynamic interplay of bold and subtle brush strokes provides a springboard for the imagination, spurred on by the artist’s images. Some pieces employ rich, emotionally suggestive colors, while others play with the powerful contrast between the black and white voids of ink and paper, and the expressiveness of the infinite shades of gray in between. Many of the paintings are finished within a matter of minutes. The lack of planning or adjustments lends the images a direct, instinctual quality.

In the Kyoto show, besides some forceful landscapes (particularly a series of waterfalls Hofmann admired on a recent trip to Yosemite National Park in California) open-minded viewers will appreciate the pleasant surprise of subjects not common to the sumi-e genre, like erotic nudes and urban landscapes from various countries.

Some may be taken aback by a vibrant depiction of a Japanese street crew operating a purple backhoe. Others will appreciate extending the maxim “life is art” to modern heavy machinery.

“I stepped out of a restaurant, and something about the machine and the way the guys were arranged was very nice,” Hofmann recalls.

While the Nagoya and Osaka shows will feature work done in traditional nanga style, pieces in the Kyoto show are more abstract.

“The wonderful thing about abstract art is that the viewer is challenged to participate. Everyone comes up with their own story: The same picture won’t look the same two days in a row.”

After 25 years of studying nanga, and applying his craft to scenes from his trips to various countries, Hofmann recognizes that he is pushing the traditional limits.

“My challenge now is to see if I can still see myself as a nanga painter, whether one can paint nanga with more of a Western background and orientation, and a modern sensibility,” Hofmann says.

“When most people in Japan think of nanga, they think of it as being really old-fashioned. But I think the definition can be expanded. As long as you’re painting from the heart, it is modern, because it’s alive.”

The Aichi exhibit focuses on a series of black-and-white scroll paintings of Buddhist sculptures by the 17th-century itinerant monk Enku, who wandered around Japan carving Buddha figures. “Enku’s work has a rough, direct quality. He would see the Buddha image almost finished already in a piece of wood lying on the forest floor, so he would just give it a few strokes, to make it come alive. They are very dynamic, sometimes humorous.”

In late May, there will be an Osaka exhibit of about 20 of the artist’s paintings embellished with impromptu uta (“songs,” or poetic inscriptions) by his teacher. Though the paintings will be in a more traditional nanga style, they will also include scenes from Hofmann’s world travels.

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