THE ORIZONT OF THE SOUND PICTURE: THE SHIN-ON OF SHUHEI MATSUYAMA
There is no such a thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko
From the onset, whenever I had to explain the meaning of Shin-on, I have always said that it is a sort of cry from the heart, an expression in tune with the self. It is, to be precise, an expression of the inner vibrations or energy of the artist and his work, perhaps the true expression of his spirit. Shuhei Matsuyama
Undoubtedly one of the questions that cropped up most frequently over the course of the twentieth century was that of the end of painting, indeed that of the death of all art. On many an occasion manifestos decreed one or the other. And yet, like the phoenix, painting always rose from its ashes. Over the course of the last twenty years we have seen the emergence of movements like the New Figuration, the revival of geometrical abstraction, the Situationists and critical and meta-ironic tendencies that have put the pictorial tradition back on the menu. At the same time we have seen the flowering and consolidation of a new and remarkable relationship with the image through the new media. Photography and video came to the fore at the moment when the emergence of digital technology permitted their total transformation. New art forms appeared, translating for example multimedia projects into works that abandon the flat surface of the wall to take over the whole of their surroundings, incorporating the dimensions of space, time and sometimes even sound. Never before have so many different media been employed in each installation and artistic project. Against this -backdrop, what approach should we take to the painting of Shuhei Matsuyama? At a time when so many means are at the disposal of artists, his dedication and persistence in exploring a pictorial territory that encompasses space and time, opening up to sound and going beyond it into the realm of the spiritual, again raise questions about the possibility of painting in the twenty-first century and about the many traditions that inspire its practice. Over the course of the last twenty years, while contemporary art was changing radically, Matsuyama has developed a style of painting that could be described as a new pictorial romanticism. Perhaps it is his position as a man between two universes, the East and the West, that allows him to explore this direction, at once pictorial and spiritual, as if for the first time. All the works created over the last few years, grouped together under the name of the Japanese ideogram shin-on, are an attempt to synthesize two experiences, at first sight paradoxical, at the heart of his art: that of painting and that of sound. For the artist the Shin-on is painting as the visual horizon of acoustics. So it is the challenge of synthesizing and balancing two worlds that are a priori incompatible that he is trying to take up in each work: the intrinsic silence of the canvas and its possible openings onto the dimension of sound. Sound – and in his view it can only be conceived in its highest form, that of transcendent, spiritual music – and its visual representation. This permanent quest obliges him to multiply his works endlessly. Variations on a theme, therefore, a search for perfection taken to an extreme, Matsuyama’s work develops organically. Although with the passing of time his pictures can display clear but subtle variations, no dissonance of style or program can be found anywhere in his output. The patience and tenacity he shows in producing one canvas after another, with the aim of coming a little closer each time to his ideal, are the qualities of this artist, who was born in Japan but has Iived for many years in Italy. His sensibility and his possible sources are a synthesis as well, at the crossroads of the two universes he carries within him. If his painting can be described as a new pictorial romanticism it is because it seems to incorporate the lessons of Eastern art as well as the advances made by the Western avant-garde movements of the twentieth century. From Eastern art it takes the precise sense of the gesture linked to the lyricism of the hand; from the West, the freedom of the forms and the play of forms as bearer of transcendent values. Out of their encounter comes a body of work that in some way recalls the more abstract landscapes of Monet, Oriental calligraphy and a whole generation of nonrepresentational abstraction, passing through Caspar David Friedrich and Turner. The Japanese’s artist’s premise is that everything is Shin-on, sound, and his painting becomes the visible materialization of this idea. This is a point of departure radically different from the pictorial tradition of the West, especially when we remember that one of the dogmas of Christianity holds that everything is light. To crystallize his vision, Matsuyama starts from the sense of hearing and takes us back to the debates in the Symbolist circles of the late nineteenth century, an influence that was to make itself felt throughout the twentieth century through the notions of synesthesia, of the synthesis of the arts and of the total work of art. Synesthesia explores those subtle connections of perception in which a sound can summon up a color or a shape, an odor or a flavor. It is a sharpening of the senses in which all perceptions refer to one another in a blaze of sensory artifice. The synthesis of the arts can be traced back historically to the theory and practice of Richard Wagner. The composer sought to elevate and renew opera by a fusion of all the arts, following in the footsteps of Schelling and Schopenhauer, among others, and this reflected the Baudelaire an ideal of correspondences. The synthesis of the arts led to the stage drama in which the sum of the arts was greater than their individual parts. The other aspect, the attempt to create a total work of art, is linked historically to Mallarmé who, by probing language alone in search of the deepest root of the specific nature of poetry, came dose to the distinctions between the genres of art established by Lessing in his celebrated Laocoòn (1766-1768). In this work Lessing set out one of the major themes of modem criticism, that of the specificity of the arts. He condemned the classical rhetoric of the ut pictura poesis, which aimed to build a concordance of the arts in which the painting could be seen as a poem in space and the poem as a moving image. Lessing ushered in a formalistic approach in which the question of the demarcation of each art is posed in order to arrive at its pure essence. While these two theoretical approaches, that of the synthesis of the arts and that of their specific distinction, may be regarded as opposites, they are both resolved in the aspiration to the total work of art, whose roots lie in an original source of the arts, a sort of wellspring of creation. So this original source of art may be attained by these two a priori antagonistic paths, that of the synthesis of the arts and that of radical formalism. Thus the Shin-on lies at the crossroads of the East and the West, of two distinct histories and traditions and two modes of resolution of an aesthetic ideal. The space of sound generated by the visual and vice versa is the idea illustrated in Baudelaire’s famous poem Correspondences.
It epitomizes this archipelago of possible interconnections between the different senses. Later, and in a more radical way, Mallarmé, in Un coup de dès n’abolira jamais le hazard (“A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”), would take this relationship further by incorporating typography and the blank part of the page as the element carrying a rhythm, a timing of the poem as if it were a score. The other extreme of this aspiration, as we pointed out above, is represented by the Wagnerian ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the synthesis of all the arts to arrive at the total work. With Wagner, in contrast to those artists who explored a single art so as to reach the sources common to all the arts, the idea was in effect to bring all the arts together on the stage in order to produce a transcendent work in which all artistic individualities would be surpassed by their union. This artistic and spiritual climate was to have a great influence on, among others, two pivotal figures of modernity: Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Both developed, as much in their theoretical writings as in their artistic practice, the idea of the synthesis of the arts and, in particular, of the perceptible relationship between music and painting. Paul Klee, let us not forget, was a talented musician as well as a painter. As for Kandinsky, he traced his first experiences of aesthetic wonder to the encounter with Wagner’s music on the one hand and with the painting of Monet on the other. These founders of the modem avant-garde based and justified their abstract art on this relationship with a higher. order of the sensible, that of music. This found expression not just in their works but also in their theoretical writings and in publications like the almanac called Der Blaue Reiter, and was diffused through their teaching at the Baubaus.. What always underlay these theories was the liberation of forms, and in particular the abolition of representation, as a means of opening up the perceptible content of color alone to the same level of intensity and richness that can be aroused by sound and music. The foundations of what the visual arts proposed at this moment of history are often sought in arguments of Pythagorean inspiration. In effect it is possible to trace the sources of this questioning to the notion. of a higher order in the echo that pure geometry and its counterpart music find in the harmonious organization of the cosmos. In this sense the ontological, or even sacred, dimension comes from the human search for a higher, divine order or one in which perfection is immanent. The theme of the Shin-on in Matsuyama is of this nature. It establishes a subtle relationship between the visual and the acoustic in which one refers to and inevitably suggests the other. The surfaces of his pictures, uneven and rich in materials, can be seen as a score to be read inwardly. The echo of his paintings reminds us of our internal and individual resonance. The delicate equilibrium between the possible sources of inspiration, be they Pythagorean or Taoist and Zen, is established in the inner being of the observer.
The whole of Matsuyama’s art seems to rest on the moderation of these two poles; resting in the balance and complementarity of different universes, in an essential equilibrium, such as is also reflected in the complex notion of yin and yang: two entities inseparable from one another in an intense, dynamic and finally harmonious correlation.. At bottom, what these two philosophies, the Eastern as well as the Western, have in common is indeed a confidence in the essential bonds that unite and permit the deductive understanding of the microcosm in relation to the macrocosm; of the way one reflects the other and vice versa. Thus perfection and balance can be found in the most elementary particle, in a painted canvas, in the harmony of the human being and finally in the arrangement of the universe. It is from this perspective that -Matsuyama’s search for perfection is a spiritual quest that passes through painting and sound. It is a quest to find a greater harmony, to unveil the music of the heavens in its smallest variations. It is in this way also that the subtle variations between his works can be seen as scales played around a single ideal, always renewed, never totally satisfied, an ideal that be always forces to start all over again. In their silence, Matsuyama’s pictures present themselves as scores to be read, to be brought to life. Thus they engage us and force the gaze to activate them with all our senses. The gaze invites the mind to discover them, to wander through them like a landscape. Their subtle shades often ring the changes on the tones of a single color: green, ochers, blues, reds. Almost pure colors – although without ever aspiring to monochrome- arranged in their own rainbow. These pictures recall the obsession shown by Monet in his quest to capture the water, the air, nature in its instantaneous instability. If Monet developed a highly sophisticated and undoubtedly also inward-looking art simply by trying to seize the moment, he also painted large numbers of canvases so as to be as faithful as possible to the infinitesimal changes in his subject, whether this was the atmosphere in front of the immutable cathedral of Rouen or the cycle of the seasons in his water garden at Giverny. In the same way Matsuyama attempts to capture inner landscapes in the variations and multiplications of the states of mind to which they may refer.
More than one of Matsuyama’s pictures directly echoes the work of Monet. I am thinking in particular of the Shin-on works of 1996 (micro-world) where the square format and the perfect tondo refer both formally and in their colors to Monet’s Waterlilies, a hundred years their elder. In his canvases the plants and the water seem to dissolve into the indiscernible, just as Monet, by focusing his point of view down onto his pool, made all reference to space disappear and created an infinite continuum. Although these two artists of very different horizons are separated by a century, the comparison seems even more warranted and pertinent in tbat Monet was particularly sensitive to Japanese art. Was he not one of the first to take up Japonisme and one of the most avid collectors of Japanese prints of his time? In addition, and at a deeper level, it is in Monet’s relationship with nature, in an aspiration, unsuspected even by himself, to rediscover a primordial, essential and universal harmony that the paths followed by these two artists can come together, beyond time and technique. Monet’s tenacity in extracting the secrets from the visible in his celebrated water garden made him one of the precursors of the abstraction of the twentieth century.
If Matsuyama’s colors often refer, as we have seen, to the world of plants and water, others Iike Shin-on, the Sound of Faith, 1999 (oat. p. 122) evoke the mineral world instead. Certain paintings run through the range of ochers and hint at the rocks of which Orientals are particularly fond, for it is possible to see imaginary landscapes in the sediments of which they are formed. Thus in this picture, the different gradations of ocher, interrupted by a fine line of red, make us think of those rough, age-old pebbles that we find on the beaches of the Pacific, gleaming in their sunlit dampness. Others in the same series conjure up the cuts in a quarry, or display flaws like the ones we see in milky marble. Once again it is without doubt the Japanese spirit that is at work here. It is from the relationship with the Japanese gardens for meditation and the search for a connection between a microcosm and the macrocosm that this attention to the mineral derives all its meaning. The natural geometry of the mineral world, into which the capricious and whimsical imperfection of a vein or a flaw often creeps, imparts a unique character to each stone, and in this discovery the spirit of the rock sneaks in with what can be exposed as its own personality. Even in their familiar similarity, each picture Is unique.
The Shin-on paintings are, as we have already pointed out, far from monochrome. They are couched in ranges of color that are for the most pan intersected by a line that becomes the structuring sign of the painting. This break is symbolic in nature, very different from the radical slashes made by Lucio Fontana in the fifties. Historically, it was Fontana who introduced the cut as a physical act in the monochrome space of the painring. Thus the gesture of cutting the canvas opened the space of the pictorial representation up to a mysterious expanse, toward a rangible vanisbing point on this side of the painting. So the picture almost becomes a sculpture, to such a degree is the other side of the painted surface present. It is a cbasm that has opened up in the canvas, an abyss into which the gaze plunges, entering a different dimension from that of the canvas and the picture.
Without resorting to a pbysical cutting of the canvas, Matsuyama articulates bis pictures in relation to a line-sign tbat runs across bis canvas. The line, revealed by contrasts of material and color, sections the picture, usually in a horizontal direction, tbereby creating the illusion of a landscape. While the break be introduces into bis painting is remote from Fontana’s, it does come closer to the heroic vision of one of the key figures in the American avant-garde of the fifties: Barnett Newman. The foundation of the latter’s work can be traced back to the picture Onement I, painted 1948, in the collection of the MoMA in New York. It is in this work tbat we find for the first time wbat was to become the determinant and structuring element of all bis work, the “zip,” the line that, from tbis moment on, would characterize all his compositions and organize them verne’ally. li is in the sensitivìty of this trembling line, in this sensation of rupture introduced between the piane and the surface, that the painting becomes a question and tbat all the spiritual element of bis quest is made manifest. Newman and bis contemporaries and friends Rothko and Pollock are often regarded as the last in a long line of romantic heroes. There is a sense of the sublime in their work tbat binds tbem together in a common ethos, above and beyond their differences. And the work and inspiration of Matsuyama can undoubtedly be connected with the same line. If bis canvases evoke landscapes because of their borizontai rhythm, they are clearly spiritual, inner landscapes and tberefore post-romantic in their attitude. Tbus bis fondness for th arrangement of fine and subtle patterns of materials is added to delicate combinations of colors ai makes us tbink less of landscape~ changing with the rhytbm of the seasons than of the innermost feelings that tbey can stir in us. In this sense we find in Matsuyan an impulse that sometimes recalì!: certain works by William Blake or the cosmogonic views of-Turnì In this quest to attain the resonaìì of painting or the picto~Ìial qualin of sound, Matsuyama goes beyon the narrow confines of these categories to draw bis strength frr a source common to all arts and rely on what we can henceforth cali a new pictorial romanticism that aspires to the horizon of the atemporai where the differ categories would be reconciled.
by Julian Zugazagoitia