Painting in awe of nature and the act of creation

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Makito Okada, in his solo show at the imura art gallery, Kyoto, is concerned with rehabilitating the 18th- and 19th-century preoccupation with the Romantic aesthetic concept of the sublime. Instead of man being seen as in harmony with the natural world, obtaining aesthetic delight from it, the sublime posited man in awe of nature, finding it threatening his existence. Nature, it appeared, could outrage the imagination and defy understanding.

This is most visibly seen in “A lighthouse keeper,” where a man stands in a rowboat and looks off into the billowing and monstrous gray of the sea and sky, without a horizon. The scene appears to stupefy the lighthouse keeper.

The man-made is also ominous. In “I’ll Protect You,” a soaring lighthouse is ostensibly the protector but it dwarfs the tiny figure in the middle ground making his existence seem insignificant. The stormy swathes of ultramarine paint laid down over graphite plays up the turbulence and suggests a mental state of solitude and agitation.

Okada’s other overriding concern is with alchemy. “Just as alchemists attempt to reproduce the material and immaterial world in test tubes in a dark laboratory,” he explains on the gallery’s website, “painters have been longing to discover the world in paintings.”

Okada’s worlds are clones of others, though their clarity quickly yields to obfuscation. In “(husband and) wife,” he copies in graphite an undated photograph of famed scientists Pierre and Marie Curie in a laboratory. He then delineates the shape of a flask in the middle of the picture and paints out its periphery in ultramarine. Looking at Okada’s reproduced world we find clarity only in the flask, almost as if looking into a crystal ball for lucidity. The rest is, while not erased, concealed.

In other works, such as “old man (and moon),” he borrows the composition of “The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorous” (1771) by Joseph Wright of Derby, and in “youth (boy and cat),” he employs “An Alchemist’s Laboratory” (1570) by Johannes Stradanus, similarly obscuring the world beyond the flask.

The sea voyage is another theme, and you may note some consonance if you consider the term “vessel,” a term also used for alchemical equipment. In earlier works Okada named his ships (Argon or Santa Maria), but from 2011 these became “Ghost Ships.” Whereas the earlier works had been superlatively detailed, the new ships, such as “Ghost Ship #7” are near geometric abstraction, and their presence is haunting because, depending on how you choose to approach the image, ghost ships come in and out of view. It is difficult both to pay attention to the ship form as a representational entity and an abstraction at the same time. That indecision between form (ship) and formlessness (abstraction) is part of the allure of Okada’s sublimity.

“Makito Okada: Impatience and hopes” at the imura art gallery, Kyoto runs till July 21; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun. and Mon.