Kōji Enokura’s watercolours

During the 1960s the painter and installation artist Kōji Enokura, a key figure within the Mono-ha movement, had made a series of abstract watercolours prior to his first solo exhibition in 1969 at Tokyo’s Tsubaki Kindai Gallery. A selection of these paintings are now on display at Space 23˚C in Todoroki. Each painting focuses on an undefinable character; an amorphous body of ‘abura’ (fat) amid the chaos of his studio at Tokyo University for he Arts. 

Nearly fifty years on, these paintings are discreet early offerings from an artist who would become known for his use of a single colour and material treating painting to reimagine their limits and they way they are seen. While these early studies are much smaller by comparison, with each painting listed as “untitled” and made prior to his solo exhibition in 1969, they hint at the severe economy and limitlessness of materials of later work with titles like ‘Wall’, 1971, ‘Symptom—Earth’, 1974, or even ‘Installation (Oil on Paper)’, 1974. Yet, while they seem to look forward and represent a new attachment to the idea of what painting might be, they do it from the domestic squalor of a young man’s bedroom. Other paintings of the same series, not on display but presented as reference material, show the recognizable outline of a room, a door frame, and even furniture as territory where these fat studies are played out, pin-pointing the subject or even the painter himself. 

Figurative they are not, but they hint at just enough for them to feel at times extremely familiar. While their nature remains ambiguous, the fat forms see to stare, as if lost in thought wishing they were elsewhere— in between places, half in the picture and half outside the room. It is something he later describes as a state beyond cognition where the real world and our relation to it is constantly retuned by the everyday and something liminal, separating fact from reason.

“The everyday slides into the pulse of the physical body and is transmitted outside along with it. There exists a dull sense of skin-like membrane that separates our existence from the everyday world. What is frightening about our relation to objects is that when we persistently look at things–a cup, for example–the connection between the object and its name becomes tenuous. The cup turns into glass, the glass into transparency, and transparency infinite. It’s necessary to fix this ambiguous and expanding relation between humans and objects somewhere and spit it out with the body’s pulse. A cup, chair, and window contains all. A cup, however, is a cup; a window is a window; and light is light. Cups, windows, and light all have a multi-layered weight behind them. This is why we cannot possess them”

Koji Enokura, “Souzou no genten” [the origin of creativity], Mizue, Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppansha, Jan. 1972.

Strangely these watercolors seem closer to the oil painting of later monochrome works, and feel closer still to his photography, of which Symptom, the generous and weighty book of photographs from 1969 until his death in 1994, is the perfect compendium and example.

While the outcome of all of this is the indication of a physical experience, be it film or paint, and the intangible field it creates—back to his liminal membrane— the artist remains part of all this, exerting an influence over proceedings. Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud,’ 1969, may be a wild comparison but in this case Bacon, like Enokura, also manipulates his subject as material for the purpose of image making. The attachment Enokura places on these fat forms in-flux suggest that someone seeing them for the first time might also be drawn into the spectacle of their making. Are we seeing the artist map their own image of horror or bliss or is it an image of our own making? How we relate with what we see and what looks back in return is no less important.

Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969)

As Symptom shows, photographs and paintings are more related than one might imagine. Enokura’s abstract images picture limits of image making where materials are touched as much as seen, inhibiting and even obscuring the subject to the point where what is being pictured and where this happens remain unclear. For both Bacon and Enokura, there are flashes of the familiar. Bacon often preferred painting from a photograph because “they inhibit me,” he said. He liked recording this inhibiting state as an “injury” incurred on a subject away from prying eyes and even the subject.

These watercolors could be thought of as Enokura’s private evocation, one he would later render with the same mood and feeling, though a more minimal palette, on a bigger scale was as public as it was performative. The fat form which appears bodily in each painting treats the darkness that shrouds them as an experiment happening behind the half-closed door of his bedroom studio.

As Damien Hirst says, “all great paintings from a distance have to look representational but up close need to dissolve so that you know it’s your mind creating the horror (or bliss) rather than the artist’s.” As Enokura moved up in scale, dissolving representation became a central theme where his mark was clearly present but every gesture felt simultaneously absent, leaving room for someone to inject the work with an image of their own horror show.

Damien Hirst on Francis Bacon

I am left wondering what the point of all this might be. The answer might come from the times, shifts in infrastructure and mental attitudes following the war. Perhaps the answer is fashioning something new without the urge to simply importing ideas from abroad. Perhaps the answer is simpler. While much has been made of how Japanese artists of the Mono-ha generation were just as doubtful of what constituted ‘new’ in a country limited by resources, and looked toward sympathetic agendas for guidance, with groups such as Arte Povera of Italy, Support/Surface of France, and the nebulous Systems art of Anti-Form, as rooted in the Bauhaus as it was conceptual minimalism from America, all providing the impetus for Mono-ha and, in particular Enokura, to usher in their own value system. 

Yet within this new cultural shift, the individual seemed lost amid the urge to reconstruct ideologically and practically. Maybe the work Enokura and his contemporaries were making also proved to be a way to excite the individual while still surrounded by the establishment more often than not discussing painting and politics by popular consensus in the same breath. The closer you approach his watercolor paintings, the more personal they become. Perhaps Enokura and Bacon are more closely related after all.

“Bacon meets Burroughs” from the BBC programme Arena (1982)

“I paint to try and excite myself, which doesn’t often happen.”

Francis Bacon

榎倉康二 展「水彩 1960年代」
Koji Enokura, “Watercolours (1960s)”

July 10 – September 13, 2020
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