Meat as modern art


I’ve pretty much stopped watching nature documentaries on TV because when an animal, say, a rabbit, is presented, and I see it born and then frolic and so on, I can’t help developing feelings for it. Then — and it usually doesn’t take very long for this to happen — a predator comes along and tears the animal limb from limb before utterly devouring it. Which may be the way of nature, but is also a bummer.

Plus, I don’t appreciate the heaping serving of hypocrisy that comes with the TV’s portrayal of meat consumption. Other animals are shown gnawing at still-twitching carcasses but when it comes to humans, we instead get an entertaining chef finessing a stainless steel knife atop a marble countertop and well-dressed diners sitting at candlelit tables. We never see the terror in the cow’s eyes, we never see the slaughterhouse worker hauling off his vat of offal.

That is because the process that puts veal on a china plate or a cheeseburger on our little plastic tray between the french fries and the diet coke is a disgusting one, and to accurately portray it would make us seem savage. And who wants to be a savage? Denial is easier to swallow.

I like Tatsuzo Hyakuda’s new work at the Maru Gallery because he paints meat the way it is: Yucky. Which is not to say “realistically,” as Hyakuda is one of those painterly painters disinclined to representation. So his meat doesn’t look like the meat in a supermarket or the meat in steak house or even the paintings of meat by Chiam Soutine. It looks, well, brutalized — as if it went with a struggle. It looks oily, smelly and it feels real.

Hyakuda, 40, is a big friendly guy, and also kind of weird. His previous work was of awkwardly-posed children with dark, disturbing eyes. Those netted him a number of prizes, including the 2000 Turner Acryl Award and a Jury Selection in the 2002 Philip Morris Art Awards.

Now he’s moved onto meat. He says he once drew a little steak in a friend’s high-school yearbook, and the memory came back to him recently while watching a television commercial advertising meat — “because there are a lot of things going around in my head, and I just picked meat”.

He decided to take raw meat as a subject because of the popular perception of it as attractive and delicious. The way Hyakuda paints it, it is neither — bits of fat and blood coagulate on surfaces in broad gestural brush strokes, with splotches, streaks and drips. But the paintings are good.

The canvases are large but not gigantic, most about 120 cm square. There is a clump of brainlike minced meat and closeups of lean cuts. The acrylic on canvas work “Suet Cube” (2006) is an exception in the series as it is dominated not by pinks and blood reds but by the white of hard fat. It is no less powerful, though, in capturing meat’s ultimate vulgarity.

“I’m not striving to communicate any message,” says the artist, “When I create, it’s no more than a child playing in the mud. Some have read melancholy and malaise into my paintings, others are comforted by their ambiguity.”

Yes, such work can be difficult to characterize. Although it takes everyday objects as subject matter, it has little of the bouncy accessibility of neo-Pop. The rawness of it places it well apart from much of the new and cutesy art coming out of Japan. But this unwillingness to pander is a big part of Hyakuda’s appeal. Here is a smart, energetic and talented fellow doing his own thing, and that’s good enough for me.

The Maru has eight works in his new meat series and selections from Hyakuda’s earlier series, including his pictures of children.