When we hearken back to the revolutionary 1960s, a decade increasingly “remembered” by people who in fact weren’t even alive at the time, the soundtrack that rings in our ears is, of course, rock ‘n’ roll.

But during the period there was a parallel revolution occurring in jazz, and most fans of Miles Davis would bristle at the suggestion that he was any less iconoclastic than Dylan or the Stones. In fact many people would argue that his experimentation resulted in an evolution of modal jazz that puts him in the pantheon of immortal musicians and composers of the 20th century.

One of those people would be Sakan Kanno. A long-time fan of Davis, Kanno is a 34-year-old jazz bassist living in Koganei, western Tokyo. Kanno is also a painter, who draws inspiration from Davis’s music to create what appear at first glance to be somewhat restrained versions of Jackson Pollock’s splatter canvases. Abstract paintings that are nicely atmospheric, perhaps, but not a lot more.

For years, Kanno’s paintings appeared in rental and decorative art galleries — in other words, staying under the radar. And then Tsutomu Ikeuchi, who runs the respected Roentgenwerke in Roppongi’s Complex Building of contemporary art galleries, happened to take a closer look at what Kanno was doing.

Ikeuchi was pleasantly surprised by what he describes as Kanno’s “visual music,” and offered the artist a show at the Roentgenwerke. These days, youth holds sway in the art world as recent art college grads sell editioned works for small fortunes and artists not yet 40 get museum retrospectives, so it is rare to see an artist start his career while in his mid-30s. But when Kanno’s exhibition, “Trace,” opened last Saturday, a lot of people were pleasantly surprised.

“Trace” comprises five medium to large works in acrylic and urethane on canvas mounted on wood panels, and several smaller works on paper. The paintings are done on a very glossy surface of sprayed urethane. The backgrounds — either in silver or red — create a rich, fertile field for Kanno’s improvisations, which are done in black and white or red and rust acrylics.

While from a distance the designs can appear as nothing more than insouciant splatterings, on closer inspection, they are revealed to be highly detailed, wispily intertwined forms in the shape of bones and shells. There is a lyrical connectedness between these bones and shells, which ironically exist as the remains of life. Here, reincarnated, they are worked into a biomorphic interplay suggesting roots in the soil, a virus in the blood or a jazz improvisation — twisting, spiraling and reaching with both apparent randomness and the wisdom of nature.

Kanno’s compositional elements tend to originate in a dense mass rooted in one location on the picture plane, usually near an edge. They then shoot toward the open space in the center of the canvas, the development checked here and there as they stop and sprout satellite sub-colonies, which, then again, re-energize the overall development of the improvisation.

A capable draughtsman, Kanno brings the third dimension into his works such that his forms seem to grow not only across the canvas but also toward or away from the viewer, as if diffusing in zero gravity — an effect achieved with help from the shimmering, reflective backgrounds.

Explains Kanno: “My influence for these paintings is the work of Miles Davis, especially the balance between suppression, tension and release in his works. I had been thinking how I could express this in an image. At first, I draw one line, then start the next acting in concert with the first line, and two lines relate to one and enhance one another. I think this style is similar to jazz music, particularly Miles’s style.”

Kanno is quite a find for Ikeuchi and Roentgenwerke, and at 200,000 yen, the largest pieces are very reasonably priced — at the opening a particularly assiduous collector looked ready to snatch up the whole lot. This is a fine debut which resonates on several different levels and proves that you never know what you will find if you just look a little closer.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.