Rivers of thick impasto swirl across the surface of Chiansei Kinhyoshi, a hypnotic example of Kazuo Shiraga’s celebrated Water Margin series of paintings. Deep swathes of burnished pigment collide to create a landscape of furrows and grooves. Suspended from a rope, the artist paints from above and propels himself across the canvas, using his bare feet to manipulate pools of color into marbled tidal waves. Chiansei Kinhyoshi bears traces of this process. Contained within burgundy red streaks that cross the canvas horizontally, just beneath its center, is an imprint of the artist’s foot. Paint accumulates at the end of the streak in a viscous mass that suggests the force of his body as it crossed from the canvas edge to the center.
Kazuo Shiraga joined the Gutai movement in 1955 and is arguably the group’s most well-known participant. Reconciling body and spirit, his work combines the influence of Western Abstract Expressionism with the pantheistic transcendence of Eastern philosophy. Trained in both traditional Japanese and Western-style painting, he took a bold new approach to oil painting when he used his hands, fingers and fingernails, instead of brushes and other tools, to move paint around a canvas. In 1954, he began using his feet because his hands were too “learned.” As Shiraga 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)By abandoning traditional tools in favor of his own body, Shiraga at once breaks free from convention and literally embeds himself in his canvas. Painting in an unselfconcious act that merges artist and medium, Shiraga’s work 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.
At the outset, Shiraga declined to title his foot paintings, believing that titles interfered with the viewer’s perception of an artwork. By 1959, however, as a matter of practicality, Shiraga began to mechanically title his paintings after the 108 Liangshan heroes from the famous Chinese classical work, The Water Margin. The present work, Chiansei Kinhyoshi, is named after the 51st hero, an earthly warrior who excelled in martial arts, carried an iron spear, and bore the nickname “Multicolored Leopard.”
Upon joining Gutai, Shiraga rejected conventionalism even further as a pioneer of performance art. For his iconic outdoor performance painting, Challenging Mud (1955), Shigura dressed in a pair of white shorts to wrestle and churn with a large pile of mud, mixed with stone and cement, with his whole body. 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. He used his feet to trace thick arabesques of impasto, splattering and sweeping ribbons of paint in his wake. Any sense of a premeditated composition was nullified and all that remained was the trace of the creator—the imprint of his body within the very grain of the pigment.
Though fascinated by the work of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Shiraga sought a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between physical matter and the human spirit. Yoshihara Jiro, the founder of Gutai, wrote: “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). In this sense, Gutai’s version of painting liberated paint from the flatness of the canvas, which, in turn, anticipated international trends that mined the performative aspects of painting and inspired artists such as Yves Klein to use the bodies of nude women as alternative tools for creative expression. For Shiraga, painting was inseparable from performance, action indivisible from object; performance was an extension of painting, and painting was an extension of performance. In 1958, Shigura and the works of other Japanese artists were shown alongside European and American artists including Tàpies, Appel, Motherwell, Klein and Pollock in the important exhibiton, The International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai at the Osaka International Festival.
Whilst Pollock and Klein maintained a certain level of distance from the canvas—Pollock through his pierced paint tins, Klein through the use of female models—Shiraga fused himself, body and soul, to the very fibers of the linen, transmitting the physical and psychological energy that allowed his raw materials to assume a life of their own. As curator 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 Levy and Axel Vervoordt Gallery, New York, 2015, p. 22). With works such as Chiansei Kinhyoshi, the canvas was no longer a surface upon which the artist reproduced an object or expressed a state of mind, but a site of primal bodily action, allowing body and material to unite in their most elementary states.