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The Japan Times Interview

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At 33, Koichi Yamashita quit his job and invested his life savings into becoming an artist. This helped him realize what he was capable of as an individual. | FRANCESCO BASSETTI


Koichi Yamashita: ‘My art is about expressing the reality beyond emotion and thought’


A critic told Koichi Yamashita to "use color," but the artist prefers to reflect the "dignity and strictness" of Japan's mountains through black-and-white representations.

Oct 29, 2022

Shunned by the art community for his self-taught style and unconventional approach to sumi-e painting, Koichi Yamashita, 57, creates striking monochrome paintings that convey the “dignity and severity” of Japan’s most imposing peaks, many of which he has climbed.

Today, Yamashita continues to dance along those very peaks and ridges, now through precisely placed brushstrokes. In a process founded on Zen practices and teachings, his work challenges the viewer to venture beyond thoughts and emotions, constructing new values and paradigms through art.

1. What is your relationship with the mountains? My mother is from Gunma Prefecture, and ever since I was a child I ventured into the mountains, climbed trees and swam in rivers. I have always loved nature.

2. Do you still spend time climbing? When I was a teenager, and in my 30s, I was crazy about climbing mountains. I was young and powerful. I no longer climb now but I still feel the mountains in my body even when they are far away. When I paint mountains, I feel as if I am climbing again.

3. How did you develop an interest in art? When I was a high school student, I didn’t have a camera, so when I went climbing, I sketched the terrain and landscape before me so that I would remember where I had been. I didn’t think of it as art at the time.

4. Do you come from a family of artists? There were no artists in my family.

5. Who taught you how to sketch and draw? I am self-taught, which means I learned by trial and error, constantly attempting new techniques. For example, I started using manga art pens, shaving their tips so that they were sharp as needles and then creating sketches that were made up of countless dots. This was inspired by the photos I saw in newspapers that, when magnified, are made up of all these tiny dots.

6. Have other artists inspired your work? The philosophy and approach to art of Kazumasa Nakagawa and Taro Okamoto both inspired me. From Taro, I learned that art is about creating new values, and from Kazumasa, I took that art is a way of life, like a martial art and therefore similar to Zen practice.

7. When did you decide to become an artist? When I turned 33, I quit my job, took out all my savings, exchanged them for foreign currencies and traveled the world to visit the best museums and make sketches of the places I visited. This was a turning point.

8. What made you make such a radical decision? I have always hated the idea of dedicating my entire life to one company. I spent 10 years pursuing that path, and, in the process, learned a lot about Japanese society. At the same time, I realized I had no idea what I was capable of as an individual.

9. Why did you seek inspiration abroad? When I first entered a Japanese art contest, many artists and their pupils tried to impose on me their vision of how art and painting ought to be done. They had a very conventional approach and criticized my work. When I asked them why I should obey their rules, they couldn’t answer. At that point, I realized that I had to leave Japan and see masterpieces from around the world to understand more about art.

10. Do you still enter art competitions? No, I stopped entirely after a judge told me that I should add color to improve my paintings. I realized that they could not understand the concept behind my work.

11. Did your travels shape your understanding of art? Yes, completely. I was unsure how to paint because of all the rules that had been forced upon me. In my travels I discovered that art is free, and that constructing new values and paradigms is the very essence of art. Art is a concept, and my painting is an illustration of that concept.

12. Has being self-taught helped you express yourself in a unique way? The hardest part was making the concept behind my art clear. Once that was in place, then my painting became clear.

13. What helped you form the idea and concept behind your work?When I started painting, I wanted to convey the transience and infinity that I saw in nature. However, I still didn’t know what transience and infinity were.

14. Could you explain the philosophy or concept behind your art?There is a paradox whereby everything is constantly changing but, at the same time, some things never change. I found this to mean that transience and infinity are one and the same. This is hard to explain in words, as words belong to the realm of thought that is temporal by nature. This is my sumi-e concept, which is embodied in the white snow, clouds and rivers that you see in my paintings. I don’t paint these objects but rather their borders and contours using black ink. In this way, I express entity without actually painting it. When you look at my work from afar, you see the objects clearly, but when you get up close, you realize that the white mountains are just paper and that there is nothing there.

15. Has Zen Buddhism helped you refine this concept? I would say yes and no because Zen is not a thought. It’s inspiration and insight. Thought and explanations are the work of the brain, but Zen is much more than our thoughts; it is a feeling that encompasses all the senses.

16. Has your style changed over time? Initially, I had a very conventional approach to landscapes, using colors to depict a foreground, midground and background. With watercolors I used very thin layers, slowly adding to them. This reflected Buddhist teachings that human beings are temporal combinations of the elements, and I saw the same thing in watercolors. Moving from watercolor to sumi-e, my concept changed, and I began to explore the reality beyond emotion and thought.

17. What inspired the shift away from color and toward sumi-e?When I was in Madrid, I went to see Picasso’s “Guernica.” At that same museum, there was a collection of his study paintings that he created in the buildup to the final mural. His artistic process started with many colors, yet the final mural uses only black and white. To me, the coloured paintings, with all their blood and screaming characters, conveyed the sadness of war.

However, in black-and-white monochrome I could feel the utter stupidity of humans, thus elevating the meaning behind the work. When I painted mountains using watercolors, they looked mild and beautiful, yet I wanted to convey their dignity and strictness. “Guernica” helped me realize that monochrome would help with this.

18. What challenges does using sumi-e present? Creating the matte black background is the most difficult part, and it is a technique that nobody else in Japan uses. I learned to create this effect by adding water for moisture and then layer upon layer upon layer of sumi (ink).

19. Will you go back to using color in your paintings? The pandemic presented me with time and allowed me to further understand the effect of color: color touches on our emotions whereas monochrome goes beyond the emotional realm.

20. What do you want people to feel when they see your paintings?That’s up to them.

Koichi Yamashita’s next exhibition will be held from Jan. 11 to 24, 2023, at Inoue Department Store in Matsumoto, Nagano Pref. For more information, visit koichiyamashita.com.

by farnorthernforest | 2022-10-31 10:50 | 画歴/ARTIST STATEMENT


by 山下康一