By PAUL LASTER, December 2022
“As a samurai, I must strengthen my character; as a human being I must perfect my spirit.” ― Yamaoka Tesshu
A modern-day samurai wielding a brush rather than a sword, Toshiki Hayasaka strengthens his character through painting. The self-taught Japanese artist’s samurai spirit was forged a decade ago through his work as a volunteer firefighter performing search and rescue in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Like Yamaoka Tesshu, a 19th-century samurai who founded a school of swordsmanship based on the unity of the soul and the blade, Hayasaka created his own way of painting, inspired by the words of an elderly woman who thanked him for rescuing people in Tōhoku and based on the unity of his heart and the materials employed for the creation of his art.
Recently in New York for the solo show “Sword Strokes,” curated by Kyoko Sato, Hayasaka presented his Kotodama and Bushido series of similarly sized circular canvases, along with a collaborative live-painting performance with the Austrian-American artist Rainer Ganahl, at Time Gallery from November 23rd though the 28th.
The series of paintings that Hayasaka has titled Kotodama, which translates from Japanese to English as the spirit of words, consists of round readymade canvases with abstract imagery that take phrases from ancient texts as their point of departure. The small canvases in this series are initially painted black by the artist so that he can express his heart on a clean slate.
After reading the age-old texts (The Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters, which is the oldest historical record in Japan, written in 712 AD), the introspective artist acts like a medium to transfer the thought of the words on canvas with brush, palette knife and hands. Paint, iron oxide and gold dust diluted with a medium are poured, dripped, splattered, thrown and manipulated on the surface of the canvas, which is often textured with powdered andesite (volcanic rock) and rare Japanese jade mixed with an animal skin glue—earthly materials that imbue the paintings with spiritual worth.
Composed on the ground, in a manner linked to the way that the American painter Jackson Pollock created his Abstract Expressionist canvases, Hayasaka works on as many as seven paintings at a time, but they can each take up to a full month to complete. The first act of mark-making provokes a reaction from the artist and the creative dance continues until the painting tells him when to stop. Circular in form, the finished paintings conjure visions of the planets from outer space or volcanic eruptions back here on earth.
Contrastingly, Hayasaka’s paintings in his Bushido series are composed with two interacting colors on canvases initially primed with mixture of magma and animal skin glue, which provides a textured ground to imply some kind of motion—like rolling waves, stirring clouds and shifting stretches of mountains. Once the ground is laid and the base color applied, Hayasaka puts down the final color with one swift stroke of the brush over the surface of the canvas—spreading the paint like an open wound.
In Japanese culture, Bushido is the way of the warrior. It’s a moral code concerning samurai attitudes, behavior and lifestyle. For Hayasaka, each Bushido painting captures a moment, and together they convey an experience. Like a string of pearls, each one is different yet together they create a necklace. What comes from the artist’s heart is not calm, instead it is an eruption—an echo of his heart. Like stepping stones in a garden, with the execution of each canvas the artist advances forward. Like a Gutai artist, each action is an experiment and each experiment improvisational.
For the pre-closing performance, titled “Two Samurais,” Ganahl brought paint, canvas and pieces of sushi, which he placed on small rectangular canvases floating on a larger painting ground. As the elder Ganahl tried to lead the action, the younger Hayasaka rebelled—leaving Ganahl with his mouth full of sushi and his spirit defeated. Victory belongs to those that believe in it the most and believe in it the longest, such is the way of the warrior—whether one is battling with a sword or a brush. WM
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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