Being original is crucial to any artist’s survival. In the field of realistic painting, though, there seems little left for artists to explore in an age when anyone with a camera has long been able to capture virtually any image of their choice.
However, this has done nothing to deter Brian Williams, a 60-year-old Shiga Prefecture-based artist who has made his entire living from his realistic paintings of landscapes all over the world.
A Peru-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Japan for 38 years, Williams says he has recently come up with one of the greatest innovations in realistic painting — what he terms “parabolic painting.”
As the name suggests, this innovation refers to landscape paintings he does on custom-made panels that have both curved perimeters and curved surfaces that together create an illusion of depth and also express the eye movement of the painter as he looked at the scene.
“I want to say that realistic painting is not dead because of the invention of photography. It’s still alive,” said Williams, who was in Tokyo earlier this year for an exhibition and sales of his artworks in the gallery of Matsuya department store in central Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district.
“Everyone thought there was no new possibility left. So that’s why they turned to Cubism or conceptual (works of art). And they are all very interesting. But in fact there was a new possibility for realistic painting.”
Williams — who first came to Japan in 1972 “with a one-way ticket, $300 and a backpack” to exile himself from his homeland in protest at the Vietnam War — cites a couple of events in his life that led to his innovation.
One occurred in 2003 when he was on a rafting/camping trip to the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. At one point, he explained, the rubber boat he was on came to a narrow side canyon with a waterfall behind it. “There, I was bending down to put a watercolor I was working on into my waterbag (to keep it from getting wet),” he said (mixing English with his fluent Japanese), “and I felt like putting everything at the scene in my painting — the waterfall in the back, the big sky overhead, the river at my foot — covering a visual field of around 180 degrees.”
It is when he saw his watercolor work get stuck and bowed as he tried to push it into the waterbag that he had a sudden flash of insight: “It doesn’t have to be flat!”
Williams subsequently asked cabinetmakers to make slightly bowed panels. Painting on them, Williams says, has allowed him to cover a far wider visual field that he could ever achieve on a flat surface without the use of distortion.
A second key event in developing his parabolic painting, Williams recalled, was an idea that came to him about three years ago when he was painting at Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, which is Japan’s biggest freshwater lake.
There, from atop a bucket truck he had bought just to paint pictures from an elevated viewpoint — he boasts, by the way, how that probably makes him unique, too, as the only painter in the world with a cherry-picker — he accidentally dropped a brush into a stream below. As he was working the controls to lower the bucket he was in, while also watching the brush drifting away in the current, he described an idea that came to him as: “The sensation of seeing is a sensation of parabolic movement.”
“And I thought to myself, ‘Geez! What a great idea! With my paint I can express the scene and with the shape of the painting I can express the way my eye looked at it.’ “
To explain how this works in practice, Williams then pointed to a painting of his titled “Yukibatake” (“Snow Field”), which shows a rural Japanese scene featuring a mountain range in the far background and an old countrywoman plowing a snow-covered field in the foreground.
Executed on a panel that is deeper toward the right — around where the old woman is depicted — before narrowing a little to the right of that, Williams pointed out how “the shape of the panel expresses my eye movement.”
“You see an oba-chan (old lady) up close so that’s why the canvas is wider here,” he explained. “Then you gaze out to the trees behind and look up at the far mountains, and so the panel expands. Your eye then travels (to the left), down the mountain and the field to a path (in the foreground).”
Well, Williams certainly explained — though whether this writer really grasped the explanation entirely was less certain.
However, he went on to note that the shape of the panel required could depend on who sees the scene. And perhaps even the painter himself could regard the same panoramic scene differently from time to time. In that case, the shape of the panel would need to change accordingly for any new work, although, he said, a slight inward curve of the panel in the middle would likely remain to enhance the image’s depth of field.
During this reporter’s visit to the Matsuya Ginza exhibition, Williams’ parabolic paintings adorning the walls ranged from an aerial view of Lake Biwa at sunrise, to the snow-capped peaks of the Everest range in the Himalayas glowing at sunset.
Surrounded by panels of assorted shapes bent in various directions, I started to feel that Williams’ works were a bit out of place showing on rectilinear flat walls. Williams agreed, noting that they would fit in perfectly on the ingeniously sinuous walls of the famed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain designed by U.S. architectural giant Frank Gehry and opened in 1997.
Williams, who has had more than 100 exhibitions at art galleries, museums and department stores — the last of which are prized art-viewing venues in Japan — says no other painter has achieved what he has. He also claimed that although curved surfaces have long been used by artists, such works — whether murals, cave or ceiling paintings, or even kaiawase (an ancient Japanese game in which players try to match pictures painted on clam shells) — have always been on pre-existing surfaces. It’s the other way around for his works, Williams says, noting that it is the image that creates the shape and the curve.
The painter, though, did concede that a few prominent painters — Pablo Picasso and Thomas Hart Benton among them — have come close to inventing parabolic painting. In particular, he cited the period when Picasso worked with potters and painted on pots, and he’d position the butt of a female model exactly where the curving pot stuck out.
As for Benton, “he only worked with flat surfaces and straight lines,” Williams said excitedly. “But within that, he made these most curving, sinuous shapes — a distorted reality.”
Regarding himself, the artist beams as he describes how, through his new discoveries, his passion for landscape painting has grown even stronger.
“I love landscapes more than anything,” he said. “They give you hope. As a living animal, you are looking for a place to live. It gives me the possibility to live to survive, to have children and have them live and survive.”
Brian Williams will display about 40 of his parabolic paintings in the 10th-floor gallery of the JR Nagoya Takashimaya department store from Sept. 15-21. He will also give talks there from 2 p.m. on Sept. 18 and 19. For more details, contact the store at (052) 566-1101
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