Windows to the Universe
"I have heart and I also communicate with people who have heart. When I paint, I also pray. Searching the new in art is always like praying." - Kenji Yoshida
If an artist were needed to illustrate the book of Genesis, Kenji Yoshida would be the logical choice. Although his oil paintings are categorized as abstract, they seem more like a deeply truthful portrait of that territory we sometimes glimpse in deep contemplation or in prayer. They feel like a snapshot of God. Stand in front of one of Yoshida's large works, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Now allow yourself simply to look, calmly and quietly for as long as your spirit is inclined. You may notice, as others have, a gradual stilling of the mind's incessant chatter, followed soon by a feeling that something small and frightened inside you may be loosening its grip.
"I want each of my paintings to be a prayer for peace," says the artist. "There is much sickness, much malaise in the universe. I want the work I do to help heal the destructiveness and pain and remind people that there is also in this universe someplace where there is no separation or conflict."
Separation and conflict are much more than abstract terms for Yoshida, whose own life has known much turmoil. Born in Japan in 1924 to a family of farmers, Yoshida knew early that his life was meant for art. By 19, he had graduated from school to be a teacher; but had already begun to study art with Hayashi Kiyoshi and with Furukido, both of whom he greatly admired.
When the war heated up in the 1940s, Furukido told him, "Do not go to war. Choose to live." But Yoshida felt it was his duty to serve and he joined the Marine Air Force. He became a pilot and saw many friends, as well as his treasured Furukido, die in the war.
But after the war, Yoshida heard Furukido's words with a new intensity; and they became his life's great commission-to choose life, to create art that celebrates the majesty and wonder of the living force. Most of his later works share one title: "La Vie"--life. For decades, his work has been completely directed toward Seimei, which in Japanese means "The Act of Living."
Moving to Tokyo in 1951, he taught art and exhibited works in oil beginning in 1957. In 1964, he moved to Paris to devote himself completely to his art and slowly built up a reputation as a printmaker of great originality. A series of personal losses, including his beloved wife and his old teacher Hayashi Kiyoshi, in the 1980s brought him back to creating in ever-increasing scale oil paintings whose content became more and more confidently serene and spiritual.
Speaking of the loss of his loved ones, Yoshida's animated expression becomes perplexed. "Where do they go?" he asks. "Where do they go?" It is a rhetorical question, for in the next breath, the artist answers. "I don't think they disappear. I think they are in Paradise, where there is no pain or suffering, no alienation."
He believes a universal joy is both our origin and our ultimate fate. And he makes it clear that this assurance is at least part of what he is trying to convey in his paintings, through line, form and a forceful use of color.
"I've been a painter since 55 years ago," he says through his friend and agent Jose Ferez. "I've always looked for form, for the right shape. I've never thought about exhibitions or traveling, or whether people would like my work. I've just always looked for the right forms."
Although he was described in the early 1960s as a "brilliant colorist," for many years he worked almost exclusively in black and white or silver.
"Everybody who starts painting uses a lot of colors," he says. "Then the ones who pursue painting more start using the colors that are in accordance with their own spirit, and they begin to throw out the colors that do not reflect their Spirit."
"I threw out all the colors once," he says. His eyes dance as he relishes the tale- imagine, a "brilliant colorist" throwing out every color- "And I used only white and black-like yes and no, presence and absence, micro and macro."
"In 20 years I only did black and white until one day I thought I was dying and I said, Really Yoshida, is black the last color that you are going to use?' So I began to question myself and see what colors I would like to use now."
The colors he allowed back into his palette were few and bold: Teal and red, a piercing blue and a deep, rich green. And metal -radiant slivers, golds and bronzes that give each of his canvases their sense of excitement and transcendence.
"I ask, 'Who has given me this gift?' God has. And what is the color of God?' Brilliancy. Silver. Gold. So in my paintings, these are the colors of God."
The sense of movement in Yoshida's work, his use of simple, universal forms, and what one reviewer has called his "inescapable sense of gravity," may be traced to his roots in traditional Japanese painting and calligraphy, of which he is a master. Although Yoshida doesn't paint on sliding panels or folding screens in the traditional method, he has been called one of the greatest screen painters in this century because of his compositions that unfurl themselves across two, three or even six large canvases. Artists of any non-Western culture might study Yoshida's work to discover their own solutions to the perennial question of how to use Western styles and techniques without destroying their own cultural roots. All the tracings of traditional Japanese art are in his work, in a place of honor; as befits a revered ancestor. However, his imagination has thrown its net over much wider waters and encompassed much that is Western as well.
The result is not just a trans cultural body of work, an amalgam of East and West, but a kind of visual synergy that transcends the limitations of each.
And for the viewer who takes the time to see, rather than simply look at, his work and spend some time in contemplation, a profound conversation can occur. Yoshida believes that this dialogue actually does occur in the realm of the divine.
"Whenever you contact an image with the thought of God (in your mind), it will never be dead," he says. "A lot of painters now don't think in those terms, therefore their work cannot draw that force. But if objects are connected with a great thought, with the Universe, they will reflect a universal truth."
-Focus/Santa Fe, January-February-March 1994, used by permission