While largely beneath the contemporary-art radar, painting for Japanese temples by the stars of the postwar art world is a relatively common activity, though largely restricted to nihonga (Japanese-style painting). Insho Domoto (1891-1975) provided interior decorations for temples all over the country, and two of the giants of postwar nihonga, Ikuo Hirayama (1930-2009) and Kaii Higashiyama (1908-1999) followed suit. Artists of the next generation such as Daisuke Hamada and Rieko Morita provided their services for big-name Kyoto temples such as Toji and Kinkaku-ji. While in more recent years, Hiroshi Senju has turned his superlative skills to Kyoto’s Daitokuji Temple, as has Akira Yamaguchi for Byodo-in Temple.

The trend, for the most part, has been for well-established artists, and all of this continues the exceedingly long tradition of temple patronage for the leading artists of the day. Taizo-in subtemple, part of the sprawling Rinzai Zen complex of Myoshin-ji Temple in Kyoto and under the leadership of Deputy Chief Priest Daiko Matsuyama, however, is in pursuit of different aims that are at once traditional and contemporary, with the two reciprocally mandating one another.

The screen paintings in Taizo-in’s main hall were painted by 17th-century artist Kano Ryokei and include scenery of the infamous Hangzhou West Lake in China. Outside the main hall one finds themes of a subtropical cycad plant and goats, all of which are essentially exotic, giving artistic form to places and things not native to Japan. According to Matsuyama, recycling the same concept for new works in the temple is anachronistic and meaningless in an age of international travel, Internet and smartphones. What is required is something new, though given the religious setting, not anything goes.

Matsuyama therefore sought a mostly unknown artist who could make paintings for his temple that would artistically define it for the next 300-400 years. Expressions of interest were solicited, and from an initial 30 or so applicants, eight made it to a final screening. Of those eight, a graduate from the Kyoto University of Art and Design was preeminent — 27-year-old Yuki Murabayashi, who had also studied under pop artist Keiichi Tanaami.

Murabayashi landed the job — and it is literally long-term employment, involving not just painting but also a process of artistic and religious training — because of two particular skills. The first is the force of her lines, historically an important criterion of good painting. The second is her ability to work fast, historically again, something tantamount to artistic genius, though in the present context it is a mitigating ability. Artworks made several years apart may well not stylistically harmonize and so a period of intensive work in which all of the 64 fusuma-e (sliding panel paintings) for the main hall are to be made in rapid succession.

In conception, the project had two objectives. The first was the preservation of the existing Kano Ryokei fusuma-e. The second was the charge of Murabayashi: To create new fusuma-e to replace the old ones in the autumn of this year. This, however, has changed somewhat.

Originally Murabayashi was commissioned to live in Taizo-in for three years from early 2011 — without even taking up a brush for the first six months. In that period she was expected to dedicate her time to the temple, taking on duties in its upkeep, while undertaking Zen training to grasp the Buddhist concepts that would instill in her the role of the temple and its weight of history that speaks to the present and its future.

In return she would receive a salary, food and shelter. Her term of employment has now, however, been extended and she is to paint around 200 fusuma-e in total. Presently, she is working for another Myoshin-ji subtemple, Jusho-in. Once work is completed there, she will move back to Taizo-in and complete the works for the main hall, anticipated now for the autumn of 2014.

For the tea room screens at Jusho-in, Murabayashi has begun with the summer season, moving into autumn in a progression of natural imagery including insects and plants. In the final scene, a bird flies directly out of the room into the temple garden. The principal concern is with the concept of “ichigo ichie” (“once in a lifetime”), which relates to Japanese tea-service gatherings where the experience aspired to be a once-only encounter — a reference to Buddhist aesthetics of impermanence. The succession of imagery conjures birth, blooming life and then the pathos of time’s arrow — the beeline of the bird outdoors.

In the room behind this we get screens of stylistic eclecticism, which have been practice works to date. Some pieces relate to Murabayashi’s interest in manga but there are also more traditional themes in ink. Here we discover flailing carp and pine trees, though the artist did not originally think that she would end up painting the seasons and their associated poetic, visual vocabulary.

When back at Taizo-in, Murabayashi’s theme is set: the five elements of earth, fire, wind, water and emptiness. The fusuma will partition the main hall into five with a room dedicated to each element. Four rooms flank a central one, which is given over to emptiness, and in which Matsuyama will recite the liturgies.

The desire is to feel the universe within the life of the temple, and for Murabayashi, to express her own ideas concerning the universe in the best materials money can buy.

Taizo-in has a tour of Murabayashi’s work on the third Saturday of each month beginning at 3 p.m., ending with a cup of tea at 5 p.m. The tour is limited to 25 participants; ¥3,000. Reservations can be made at: taiken.onozomi.com/special/taizoin (Japanese only) English details can be found at: painting.taizoin.com/e. Taizo-in is a 5-min. walk from JR Hanazono Station on the Sagano Line in Kyoto.

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