“Let’s create some strange and weird things.”
- Motonaga Sadamasa
By building a bridge spanning post-war and contemporary art, Motonaga has come to occupy a unique position in Japanese art circles. He officially joined the Gutai art group in 1955, reaffirming the Gutai artists’ use of all possible techniques and materials in their creations. He himself used natural as well as industrial materials, including such media as liquid, smoke, wood, stone and plastic in creating his experimental sculptures, thereby revealing yet another kind of beauty inherent in surrounding materials. The oddly-named large installation Work (Water) has staged its reappearance in recent years at the Guggenheim Museum (Fig. 1). The weight of coloured water in the plastic tubes in this work gives form to its organically curving arcs. Praised by Jiro Yoshihara as the first water sculpture, Work was displayed outdoors earlier than 1956, and evidently appeared before the concepts of landscape art and new-media art. Motonaga had already begun to explore the specific fields of these artworks, and to blend and so transcend differing media.
Flowing colours guide intuition in the 1960s
Even as he abides by the laws of physics to explore the particularity of materials, in his creation of installations, Motonaga also unearths more of painting’s latent potential. Inspired by traditional Japanese tarashikomi painting techniques, which applies further pigment to moist, still undried patches of permeable lighter pigment, and the darker pigment naturally flows and permeates this to present a striking visual effect. Motonaga combines turpentine and resin to drive the colour into an exquisitely flowing form, thereby creating a highly personal and symbolically abstract composition.
Going flat in the 1970s
From 1966 to 1967, Motonaga received a grant to live and create in New York. There, he mastered the use of spray painting techniques to produce another bold and novel visual vocabulary, one similar to graffiti and cartoon art, which became the most common motif in his later works. His lively and varied, absolutely flat images recall the style of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (Fig. 2). The works of these two are invariably charged with the two-dimensionality so emphasised in traditional Japanese features, a form that traces back to the Ukiyo-e characteristics of the Edo period. Compared with the “super flat” aesthetic model advocated by Murakami in the early 1990s, and before this had greatly influenced many Japanese artists, Motonaga had already begun to exhibit a very similar concept in the 1970s, exploring how one person’s style might carry on the legacy of Japan’s unique culture.
The organics and mobility the artist implements as creative qualities are visual elements he characterises as being in embryonic form and replete with cartoons stamped with katachi meaning. The artist derives some of the constituents of these forms in particular from everyday life, and results in a chord of familiarity to resonate within the audience. Like TAPA TAPA (Lot 35), a work full of interesting propositions, the artist once described how this type of form and colour execution is inspired by nocturnal views from Mount Rokko (Fig. 3) near the city of Kobe, Japan. The neon light that outlines the mountains’ contours appears as if in a dreamscape and renders an effect of motion. The painting style of hard-edged, clear flowing lines in a twisting form exhibits a human-like appearance but has the dynamics of water, like a coiled up or continuously rotating and extending organism that leads the viewer's gaze to wander along the arc of the curve. Motonaga also selects red and green, and yellow and purple as the dual pairs of complementary colors, and the stark contrast is chock full of visual stimulation that renders the entire work pregnant with a sense of power. The edge of the colour patch that gradually transits into two high bright lines enhances the light-dark effect, much like the sun’s corona extruding out of darkness during a solar eclipse.