It’s hard not to think of the history of painting as a revolving debate on surface – its appearance, effect, aura and the material means of its definition. Nobuya Hoki’s fourth solo exhibition at Taka Ishii Gallery adeptly advanced the practice of how surface can render things, and how those things are best when they remain purely surface.
At first glance, Hoki’s paintings look like overloaded frames of irritated gesticulation, typical of the murky diagrams of Art Informel. Despite this apparent similarity, it’s crucial to consider his work in the Japanese context. A now unfashionable period of postwar French abstraction, Art Informel had a substantial influence on Japan’s emergent postwar Modernism. Both nations bore scars of military conflict and many surviving artists embedded aspects of trauma within their surfaces: French painting muddied its once luminous pools, while Japanese painting strove to decimate the heroic realism of its official wartime panoramas. Hoki’s work reveals a clinical avoidance of the European liaisons fostered by the Japanese embrace of Art Informel. In fact, his mode of abstraction relates more closely to an almost hermetic Japanese tradition of calligraphy.
Over the last decade, Hoki has explored the representational value that even the most abstract squiggle can hold. Made using a mysterious brush of his own invention, his paintings have been noted for their swirling lines that conjure biomorphic figures melting into liquefied landscapes. Sometimes rendered in monotone, other times with a restricted palette, these works’ lines trawl across otherwise blank canvases, imbuing them with the feel of a feverish storyboard frame for some phantasmagorical event. Flora and fauna mutate, erupting into clouds, bubbles and geysers of transforming shapes, all the while hovering at the edge of legibility. As you look closely at the potentially representational, it instantly evaporates into abstraction.
The suite of large-scale, vertical rectangular canvases in Hoki’s recent exhibition (all Untitled, 2014) represent a considerable development from his earlier work. Here, the paintings are undeniably abstract, utilizing rich, densely layered brush-strokes. All sense of the figurative dissolves in the illusory and actual depth created by the microscopic displacement between each painted layer. While such abstract congestion is a particularly painterly technique, Hoki’s brushwork is essentially calligraphic. Our eye is continually drawn to follow his meandering strokes, which accumulate to provide each canvas with a peculiar density. Indeed, these marks are less gestural and more archaeological, forming palimpsests which record the energy of Hoki’s arm hand and arm movements.
Hoki hung each work at eye level – a bold and effective strategy that politely solicited our contemplation of these coffin-sized paintings. For the works do not radiate heroic cosmology in the large-scale Ab-Ex tradition. Instead, they suck you into a world where each elongated brush-stroke seems to convey a singular life-force, like one person amidst the throng at Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing. And once you dive in, you can’t forget you’re in Japan. A distinctive jade green shines centrally and peripherally in many of the canvases. This traditional colour appears as an important signifying hue in everything from Kabuki backdrops to Rimpa landscapes, and Hoki has smeared it throughout all his works in this exhibition. It’s a pigment that has long suggested fresh mountain water, warm green tea and young pine trees. Silken sprays and translucent folds float across Hoki’s frenetic canvases to induce a calm mostly absent in the visible violence of postwar abstract painting both in Japan and the West. Indeed, this distinctive jade – hesitantly scraped or broadly smeared – operates like a void, just as gold leaf backgrounds do in 19th-century Nihonga. Hoki’s overlaid brushstrokes constitute a sentient calligraphy that weaves amongst these historical zones of Japanese depiction, channelling their cultural significance into contemporary gestural painting.