‘When, on discovering my true nature, I decided to cast off all the existing uniforms and be naked, figuration shattered into fragments and I dropped my [palette] knife which broke in two ... One day I swapped my knife for a piece of wood which I rejected out of impatience. I tried with my bare hands, with my fingers. Then, convinced I needed to be even bolder, I went even further and that is how I came to feet. That was it! Painting with the feet’
‘Sexual energy, the violence of the hunt, of war, and of man’s encounter with nature are embodied and repeated by [Shiraga’s] works, which are always inspirited by movement – not just the movement of his body, however, but also the assertion of matter itself’
With its liquid rivers of thick impasto looped and swirled across the surface of the canvas, Choji Haten (Unprecedented Leap) is a hypnotic large-scale example of Kazuo Shiraga’s celebrated action paintings. Rich, deep swathes of burnished pigment collide and intermingle in seemingly endless chromatic strata, creating a geological landscape of furrow and grooves. Suspended from a rope, the artist paints from above, propelling himself across the canvas and using his bare feet to manipulate pools of colour into rhapsodic, marbled tidal waves. A member of the influential Japanese Gutai movement from its inception in 1954 until its dissolution in 1972, Shiraga played a pivotal role in the group’s rejection of conventional artistic methods. Reconciling body and spirit, conscious and subconscious impulses, his work combines the influence of Western Abstract Expressionism with the pantheistic transcendence of Eastern philosophy. By abandoning traditional tools in favour of his own body, Shiraga literally embeds himself in his canvases, situating his work between painting and performance art. In doing so, he powerfully invokes the concept of shishitsu: a term that refers to the innate capabilities of the human body, and the intrinsic connection between flesh and psyche. ‘When, on discovering my true nature, I decided to cast off all the existing uniforms and be naked, figuration shattered into fragments and I dropped my [palette] knife which broke in two’, he explained. ‘... One day I swapped my knife for a piece of wood which I rejected out of impatience. I tried with my bare hands, with my fingers. Then, convinced I needed to be even bolder, I went even further and that is how I came to feet. That was it! Painting with the feet’ (K. Shiraga, quoted in ‘L’Acte Même’, in 1910-1970 Japon des Avant-gardes, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1986, p. 300).
Shiraga was first introduced to contemporary Western art practices in 1951, when the third Yomiuri Independent Exhibition travelled to Osaka. Though fascinated by the work of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in particular, he sought a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between physical matter and the human spirit. Yoshihara Jiro, the founder of Gutai, wrote that ‘Gutai Art does not alter the material. Gutai Art imparts lift to the material. Gutai Art does not distort the material … In Gutai Art, the human spirit and the material shake hands with each other, but keep their distance. The material never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates the material’ (Y. Jiro, Gutai Manifesto 1956, quoted in A. Munroe, Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, New York 1994, p. 84). Shiraga’s earliest works explored this concept through performance pieces in which he used his whole body to churn great heaps of mud. Elsewhere, in an open-air exhibition in Ashiya, he used an axe to lacerate piles of red-painted logs. Eventually, Shiraga began to transfer these intense corporeal gestures to canvas: laying a great swathe of linen upon the ground, he applied masses of paint before launching himself over the surface, suspended from a rope that enabled his body to swing from one end to the other. Using his feet, he traced thick arabesques of impasto, splattering and sweeping ribbons of paint in his wake. Any sense of premeditated composition was nullified; all that remained was the trace of the creator – the imprint of his body within the very grain of the pigment.
Relying solely on the carnal instincts of the artist’s body, Shiraga’s method eradicated all potential for second thoughts and retouching – a principle intrinsic to the traditional forms of calligraphy he had studied in his youth. Predating the philosophies of Yves Klein, who was inspired by his early encounters with Gutai, Shiraga retrospectively explained how ‘I wanted to create paintings with no composition or no sense of colours, no nothing’ (K. Shiraga, quoted in ‘Osaka Action Talk: From an Interview by Haryu Ichiro (1973)’ in R. Tomii and F. McCaffrey (eds.), Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades, New York 2009, p. 62). The canvas was no longer a screen upon which the artist reproduced an object or expressed a state of mind, but a site of primal bodily action. Whilst Pollock and Klein maintained a certain level of remove from the canvas – Pollock through his pierced paint tins, Klein through the use of female models – Shiraga fused himself, body and soul, with the very fibres of the linen: a transmission of physical and psychological energy that allowed his raw materials to assume a life of their own. As Ming Tiampo has written, ‘Sexual energy, the violence of the hunt, of war, and of man’s encounter with nature are embodied and repeated by [Shiraga’s] works, which are always inspirited by movement – not just the movement of his body, however, but also the assertion of matter itself’ (M. Tiampo, ‘”Not just beauty, but something horrible”: Kazuo Shiraga and Matsuri Festivals’, in Kazuo Shiraga, exh. cat. Dominique Le´vy and Axel Vervoordt Gallery, New York, 2015, p. 22). By eliminating all formal constraints from his art, Shiraga allowed body and material to unite in their most elementary states. In Choji Haten – a title that reflects that artist’s deliberate submission to physical impulse – this approach gives rise to an image of violent, transcendent beauty.