Terao Katsuhiro cover

The Unconventional Beauty in Japanese Art Brut

Google Maps declares that my destination is on the left. I frantically lower the volume on my phone, anxiously press the home button to closeout the app, and pretend like I didn’t need any automated assistance getting to my destination. It’s Chelsea, after all—a trendy Manhattan neighborhood known as New York’s premier contemporary-art district—and I want to appear entirely composed, not utterly confused.

I glance up to my left and discover a nondescript, loft-like building—home to many art galleries, I presume. As I ascend the stairs, I am greeted on the second floor landing by Marissa Levien, who has managed Cavin-Morris gallery since 2014. She asks if I had any trouble finding the place—I assure her it was a breeze.

“Randall Morris and Shari Cavin co-founded Cavin-Morris Gallery in 1985,” she tells me.

“The gallery specializes in the work of non-mainstream artists from around the world—self-taught artists whose pieces are, by definition, unconventional. Our current exhibit, Japan: Art Brut, features 23 pieces by ten Japanese artists who paint and draw simply because they have an impulse to do so. They create art for creations sake—for nothing more.”

Morris later tells me that the Gallery is dedicated to visionary art that does not conform to an art-world agenda. “Our deliberate focus is self-taught artistry because, though we are fully immersed in contemporary art from an intellectual perspective, we love being part of a field that is not constantly self-referential in its history. We are interested in the history of art as told by the artists—not the infrastructure built around it.”

Terao Katsuhiro, <em>The Third Floor</em>, 2003, Pencil and Acrylic on Paper, 35” x 92”.

Terao Katsuhiro, The Third Floor, 2003, Pencil and Acrylic on Paper, 35” x 92”.

It wasn’t hard for Cavin and Morris to select a theme for the gallery’s summer exhibition. “Japan is a country now first realizing it has a rich vein of artwork running through it—with all of the variety and nuances found in Western Art Brut,” Morris explains. “We wanted to highlight a group of artists whose pieces, collectively, embody the essence of Japanese culture. Each of the artists on display: Akinori Yoshida, Eiichi Shibata, Hiroe Kittaka, Hirotaka Moriya, M’onma, Tae Takubo, Terao Katsuhiro, Yukio Miyashita and Yuichi Saito speak to us in a universal tongue that maintains its indigenous integrity and yet draws us in essentially and completely.”

In 1947, I learn, French artist and sculptor Jean Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut (raw art) to describe the works of untrained artists whose pieces were untouched by the aesthetic influence of the professional art world. According to the manifesto he put forth, these artists, “derive[d] everything from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.”

“In many cases, those artists were using artistic expression as a form of therapy,” Levien says.

“He later expanded that definition to include untrained artists whose works were untouched by the aesthetic influence of the professional art world. In many cases, those artists were using artistic expression as a form of therapy,” Levien says.

“More than half of the artists featured as part of Japan: Art Brut are connected with facilities that provide a place to work and various art supplies. Most often, these organizations take in people with special needs for the day and provide them with a creative outlet. Then the artist returns home to his or her family at the end of the day.”

Tae Takubo is a star of the Japanese Art Brut tradition. She lives in the Chiba Prefecture, just west of Tokyo, and works closely with a facility there. Tae’s drawings are created almost exclusively in colored-marker on paper. Her bright, vibrant creations remain untitled, allowing the viewer to come up with his or her own interpretations.

Tae Takubo, <em>Untitled</em>, 2012, Marker on Paper, 14.57” x 11.22”.

Tae Takubo, Untitled, 2012, Marker on Paper, 14.57” x 11.22”.

“Having met her in person when she attended a previous Cavin-Morris show, it was clear she was a kind person whose personality very much mirrors the liveliness that you see in her artwork,” Levien says. Takubo’s work has garnered much attention in both Japan and the United States.

Like Takubo, Akinori Yoshida works in cadence with a facility in Osaka, Japan called Big-I. The workshop he attends allows self-taught artists to create and then showcase their work on a global scale. The piece below, entitled Characters, shines a light onto one of Japan’s most popular art forms: calligraphy.

Akinori Yoshida, <em>Characters</em>, 2010, Ink on Paper 20.47” x 26.57”.

Akinori Yoshida, Characters, 2010, Ink on Paper
20.47” x 26.57”.

“In Japan, calligraphy isn’t just writing, it is a high art unto itself. It is an ancient language, a legacy that holds within itself the codes to Japanese culture and society,” explains Morris.

“With this show, we wanted to examine the beauty of language as image and image as language. We are fascinated by Yoshida and the way his calligraphy moves and breaks down and becomes a mode of obsession and individual style. The words become what they signify, so they have physical and ephemeral presences at the same time.”

Hirotaka Moriya achieves a similar effect by brushing sumi ink on rice paper to create a pattern of Japanese calligraphy.

“Moriya is taking a tool that exists as a form of communication and using it in a way that transcends its literal use. This, in turn, creates artwork that communicates aesthetically on a broader, entirely different level,” Levien says.

Hirotaka Moriya, <em>Untitled</em>, 2013, Sumi Ink on Rice Paper, 9.72” x 13.23”.

Hirotaka Moriya, Untitled, 2013, Sumi Ink on Rice Paper, 9.72” x 13.23”.

When I ask Morris if he has a personal favorite amongst the ten artists, he says M’onma is probably the gallery’s most important discovery.

“M’onma’s work has incredibly rich depth and style and he carries an entire universe in his pieces. We are most moved by his work because it reaches the highest of all places in art: timelessness. We see him as one of this century’s great Masters.”

M’onma, <em>Untitled</em>, 2001, Color Pencil on Paper, 18.75” x 11.125”.

M’onma, Untitled, 2001, Color Pencil on Paper, 18.75” x 11.125”.

The artist, who lives in Tokyo, sometimes recedes to the mountains or temples outside of the city to draw. He doesn’t speak much about his artistic process, but we know he was a traditional artist for most of his life. When he entered his forties, M’onma describes a sensation of being taken over by an entity—a spirit or divine force took over his hands and pushed him to start creating art in new ways. Instead of fighting this impulse, he followed it, and has been creating pieces like the one below ever since.

M’onma, <em>Untitled</em>, 2005, Graphite, Conte on Paper, 11.02” x 6.89”.

M’onma, Untitled, 2005, Graphite, Conte on Paper, 11.02” x 6.89”.

“We are the first gallery in the world to show his work,” Morris tells me. “M’onma is not mainstream, he is not part of the canon of the art world, his style emerged as a part of an alternative process of art making that is closer to a séance than a dialogue with art history. His style is fully developed and mature.”

The Gallery has showcased M’onma’s work before, most recently in January 2014 for an exhibition focused on Lucid Dreaming. Visitors were captivated by the artist’s highly detailed, imaginative, colored-pencil drawings, prompting Morris to feature his work again this summer.

“Every country in the world has artists outside the mainstream, and this show is just one step on our path to showing as many of these artists as we can,” says Morris.

Japan: Art Brut runs through August 14, 2015 at the Cavin-Morris gallery in New York City.