Axel Vervoordt Gallery is pleased to present a solo exhibition by Tsuyoshi Maekawa, showcasing the artist’s boundless investigations of materiality from the late 1950s until 2018. As was the case for all Gutai members, the act of intuitively creating art was more important than the direct representation of something. Gutai’s spirit continued to persist within Maekawa’s practice for about sixty years. His fascination for materials like burlap and hemp cloth can be expressed by every conceivable means — cutting, tearing, and sewing — searching and pushing the limit of the material and the materiality itself.
“Gutai art does not alter Matter… Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter. When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out.” — Gutai manifesto, declared by Jiro Yoshihara in 1954
The Japanese avant-garde art group known as the “Gutai Art Association” was founded in 1954 in Ashiya by Jiro Yoshihara against the backdrop of post-war Japan. With his artistic charisma and international mind, he celebrated with his Gutai followers the dawn of a new era through the fundamental idea of stressing the importance of originality without copying anyone.
Maekawa joined the Gutai group in 1962, as part of a second-generation, which brought fresh air into the group just as Yoshihara attempted to make a shift of artistic focus in the Gutai group from action and performance-oriented to material-oriented. Maekawa chose fabric rather than painting on a canvas to express his visual language. From the late 1950s, the fabric of choice was burlap. Composed of plant/hemp fibres, burlap is a woven fabric that was mainly used as bags for rice and grains. Maekawa used this humble and ubiquitous material available during a chaotic time when Japan was experiencing a healing process following the traumas of World War II.
As Japan rose again followed by its economic and social developments, the relationship with Western countries deepened at the beginning of the 1960s. Maekawa’s new form of expression was highly appraised internationally, which led to his solo exhibition in 1963 at the Gutai Pinacotheca. It was established by Yoshihara in Nakanoshima, Osaka in 1962. Named by Michel Tapié, the French critic and advocate of Art Informel in France, Pinacotheca had instantly become a meeting point for artists – both Western and Japanese — such as Georges Mathieu, Paul Jenkins, and Robert Rauschenberg but also for influential collectors like Peggy Guggenheim. Maekawa’s creative endeavours were also known in Europe by his participation in the Nul 1966 Exhibition in The Hague.
In “Mannaka Tate no Blue” (1964), meaning “Vertical Blue in the Middle”, Maekawa randomly places pieces of burlap onto a canvas, which are torn ferociously by his hand, then cut and folded the material to make the protruding surfaces using an adhesive bond. Without having a preliminary concept in mind, his intuitive action creates the work, which becomes more important than the final results. The act of destroying the picture was perhaps his way of expressing reconstruction of a land ravaged by war, yet it was also a celebration of freedom and democracy in the new era of Japan — a signal of hope.
The Gutai movement ended abruptly at the time of Yoshihara’s death in 1972, which was emotionally devastating to all Gutai artists. During a few years of struggle from the loss of their mentor, Maekawa’s leitmotif was to inherit Yoshihara’s spiritual legacy while striving to endure his creative path. He started to re-explore the rich and tactile textures of materials. Maekawa explains in his interview:
“I always think what can be done with the materials that I use. How I can transform the shapes and forms by expanding their materiality. I like to use burlap and cotton hemp because these suit my hands and skin.”
Looking for unexpected discoveries during the production process visually and aesthetically pleases Maekawa. Using a sewing machine, Maekawa makes seams defined by their slender, convex, and concave lines created on cotton canvas, which became his predominant style from the late 1970s to today. Maekawa creates elegant and pliable-looking imageries on the surface, often incorporating sewn, wrinkled, and twisted waveforms. When these elements appear on the surface, they gently reveal the calm subtlety and tactility of the materiality. He gradually moved away from Gutai and discovered a new style. In his works from 1979 and later, Maekawa used paint to make wrinkles and shadows, and he created shadows with the appearance of virtual images in the raised areas of his composition. In the 80s and 90s, Maekawa used thin cloths and combined different weaves of fabric.
In later works, his compositions become simpler and purer enhancing the three-dimensional effects of the canvas. He uses less and less colour that ultimately results in more monochrome works in which he adds a touch of brown or black, creating shadows. This can be seen in “Untitled” and “181101” (2018), affirming the power of materiality, but also opening new trajectories to the space perhaps resonating with Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale.
Maekawa’s career spans six decades and even after Gutai’s dissolution, he pursues the search for unique forms of visual language. Maekawa’s spirit of contemplating and giving life to materials still goes beyond his artistic limitations today.