Kei Hiraga spent much of the 1970s in Paris, living among bohemian artists and gallerists in the exciting and bewildering as the European painting world that differed so greatly to that of Japan, literally shocking him into changing the direction of his creative processes. Forced into abandoning the white oil paints he favoured in the 1960s, Kei Hiraga first employed acrylic paints and through a rigorous process of trial and error, eventually toned down the "garish and raw" nature of the medium to his satisfaction. This discovery of acrylic paints helped Kei Hiraga articulate his newborn confidence as an artist and followed with abundant invitations and acceptations to exhibit in Belgium, England, Holland and Italy, ultimately defining his identity as an artist.
Audacious, visually electric and whimsical, the works of the 1970's are equally a testament to Hiraga's baffled enchantment with the French joie de vie. While he loved the long evenings of drinking, he found that this severely limited his artistic productivity. But when time allowed, Hiraga painted voraciously, using a vibrant colour palette to render eccentric, sexually entangled figures as if in demonstration of his chaotic yet exhilarating life in France. Hiraga's tightly curated compositions also demonstrate his understanding of the importance of figurative narrative in paintings, citing that he "took a hint from Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rear Window", comic strips and Picasso's Guernica (currently housed in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid), as inspirational sources of storytelling. Using the intertwined bodies dosed with phallic tubes and falling breasts to form the basis of the wondrous scene, Hiraga additionally injects emotional elements through striking colours, projecting the thrilling stimulation of his senses during his early years in Europe.
Upon his departure from France in the 1980s, Hiraga sought to create works with a greater Japanese flavour, having mentally prepared to do so for years. As seen in Feast (Lot 1673) and Oiso Long Beach (Lot 1517), thematic explorations of eating, tea ceremonies and swimming are depictions of personally significant themes to Hiraga but with a European flare. Lounging on Oiso beach, the pale white figures, painted for the first time in their entirety, don kabuk make up and lounge as if on a nude friendly beach in the south of France. The depiction of the beach and the oversized table in Feast show a transitional stage between the decorative backgrounds of the 1970s work to the later more intricate and inherently Japanese interiors of the 1990s. While the overall impression of these two works conveys a sense of Eastern culture, Hiraga's works are still heavily influenced by his impressions of France in colour and composition.
It is perhaps in Endless Evening (Lot 1516) and Room with an Ocean View (Lot 1518) that display the equilibrium of Hiraga's Japanese upbringing and European cultivation. A repetitive, yet carefully executed palette of non-representational colors, forms and proportions creates a unique and complex composition, overflowing with miniscule and elaborate details. Hiraga careful use of gold colour is reminiscence of Japan's famed gold screens and evokes nostalgia for the artistic traditions of decorative Edo period screens. Seated upon familiar tatami mats, the subjects in Room with an Ocean View sit in relative peace, admiring the seascape in the same way Japanese do hana-mi. The seemingly drunken women in Endless Evening toppled over one another, flash their tattooed legs to the viewer in a partial show of strength. Such displays were very familiar to Kei Hiraga from his early days spent assisting in tattoo parlour in the entertainment district of Asakusa in Tokyo where both men and women were tattooed. It is no coincidence that Hiraga's exuberant compositions filled with challenging and colorful scenes of luscious women and mysterious men are fascinatingly oddly familiar, as the themes are playful reinventions of locations and activities well known by many. Combing through three decades of Hiraga's candid works divulge details like chapters of his autobiography. We play witness to his mesmerizing artistic creations whose eccentric representation of his life is still so fresh and contemporary.