Shigeru Matsuzaki’s Wonderland
Shigeru Matsuzaki, Maiden Voyage I, 1994, ink and acrylic drawing
Shigeru Matsuzaki's Wonderland
August 31st, 2001 - January 12th, 2002
Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer
The paintings of Shigeru Matsuzaki, like the illustrated fables in children's books, conduct us on a journey through an enchanted world of dreams. These dreams are populated by magicians, marionettes and puppeteers, queens, musicians, a very large cat, an owl, an actor disguised as a yellow bird, tiny figures who look like clowns in red costumes and wear pointed hats like wizards, and many others. The scenery in this fabulous, theatrical world is also imaginary, dream-like, romantic, unbounded. In many of the pictures, a crescent moon shines in the sky - signifying night-time, the hour of dreams and spells.
The motifs which constantly reappear in Matsuzaki's works make our encounter with them easier for us. From painting to painting, his figures become more familiar, they are no longer strangers - the purple owl, the yellow bird/actor, the magician (also wearing purple), the red figures. According to the artist, these are actors assisting in a theatrical event presented in his wonderland, whose mysterious presence has always aroused his curiosity. The yellow bird is, in fact, Matsuzaki himself, appearing in this human comedy together with the other, imaginary actors.
Some of Shigeru Matsuzaki's paintings present theatrical or circus performances to an empty auditorium. The theater is empty, he explains, because he wants the audience to look at his own "performance" - his painting. Apart from which he believes that empty spaces set the imagination to work. In other paintings, the audience consists of tiny figures dressed in red, wearing pointed hats. "Audiences are usually so noisy, so undisciplined," declares Matsuzaki "so the color most appropriate to them is a loud red". However, the specific colors for the motifs which constantly reappear in his works are not merely symbolic, but represent his own personal feelings about them.
Whenever the red figures are present, they do not sit in their places, but perform all kinds of absurd actions, like knocking over the chairs in the auditorium, or pushing them about. It's obvious that they are not just spectators, but also actors. Maybe they are "restless simply because they are not enjoying the play" says Matsuzaki.
The figures in the paintings are western, rather than Japanese. Matsuzaki explains that he grew up in surroundings and an atmosphere permeated with the western culture (music, art, books, etc.) that his father loved so much. He declares that he internalized this foreign culture quite unconsciously, which is why its influence on him is more evident that that of traditional Japanese culture. Not that he rejects the latter. He is passionately interested in the comparisons between the two cultures. Thus, for example, the different sizes of the images, he says, certainly indicate that Roman and medieval art have influenced his work. But together with figures and subjects derived from western cultures, one can see his use of Japanese concepts of composition, the varying perspectives, the simultaneous bird's-eye and parallel views characteristic of the traditional Japanese "Yamato-e" paintings. For example, the view of the theater is from overhead, whereas the figures are represented from the side, revealing more to the spectator than if the whole composition had been represented from above. As far as color is concerned, Matsuzaki adheres to the special quality of the traditional Japanese woodblock prints, using complementary local colors to fill the areas, which are all outlined, thereby increasing the sense of two-dimensionality.
At first glance, Matsuzaki's paintings seem (though they are anything but) naive. Some of them arouse deep, philosophical questions about manipulators and the manipulated. This is especially obvious in his depictions of puppeteers working their marionettes which are, in turn, manipulating other puppets, as in "Theater"
(1995). The puppeteers are not very different from the puppets, except that they are larger, their clothing is more elaborate, and their eyes are blue or green, whereas the puppets' eye-sockets are black. This resemblance is certainly not arbitrary, and the intention may be to suggest that "in His own image created He them". If this is so, are we too puppets in a theater inside a theater, even if we think we are the puppeteers? Perhaps the puppeteers are themselves puppets, and so ad infinitum? What is the meaning of this endless regression, in which ruler is subject, and servant is master? Does it mean that we can never know the ultimate motive for our existence?
Matsuzaki insists that he simply loves to see images reflected in reflecting mirrors in a never-ending sequence. In this repeated reflection we can all be puppets and puppeteers. "Perhaps it's a law of nature" he suggests, but prefers to let the viewers decide for themselves.
Another of Matsuzaki's deeply meditative paintings is "The Babelic Place" (1998). A city has been built on a spiral tower rising into the clouds. At the top of the tower there is a circus tent with little red figures performing acrobatics. These dangerous acrobatics symbolize man's attempts to surpass himself. When building the Tower of Babel, man's sin was pride. He tried to reach God, and even to rise above Him. In punishment, and to teach men not to go beyond the prescribed limits, God brought all to naught by causing a confusion of tongues. The tower collapsed as a result of lack of communication between man and man. Perhaps this painting is the answer to the riddle of the master and the servant, the manipulated and the manipulator. The "human circus" happens when we try to control our world by means of communication. Communication is thus a form of control, and performance - in this instance, painting - is often a form of international communication without words. Is Matsuzaki trying to "fool God" by calling attention to communication that does not necessarily use words, i.e. art? Again, the artist leaves it to the viewer's imagination. We certainly look ridiculous when we "don't know our place". As in Genesis, when the Tower of Babel collapsed, this painting depicts mankind's fall from grace. The sign is there, in the lower right corner, where a bird of paradise has trapped one of the red figures in its beak - perhaps the only frightening image to be seen in Matsuzaki's wonderland.
Despite his preoccupations with theater and circus, Matsuzaki claims that the subjects arose from images and figures seen in his imagination, to which his interest in theater is purely secondary. Nonetheless, he firmly believes that "all the world's a stage", and that we are merely players in it.
The works of Shigeru Matsuzaki are exhibited at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art by courtesy of Mr. Bernard H. Pucker and Mrs. Sue Pucker, of the Pucker Gallery, Boston.