Ahead of a long-awaited solo exhibition at Perrotin in New York, we spoke to Japanese artist Izumi Kato on his artistry, creating during a global pandemic, and why he refuses to define his art with meaning.
TEXT: Kate Lok IMAGES: Courtesy of Perrotin
Looking at Japanese artist Izumi Kato’s works is a rather captivating experience. Much like the zany creatures he creates, Kato’s paintings and sculptures are a bold statement in their use of colour and scale, resulting in an uncanny ability to blur reality and fiction.
His oeuvre ranges from canvases, sculptures to large-scale installations. Yet painting is his first love. Kato adopts a rather unique method, and paints not with brushes, but with his hands, gradually building the colours on his canvas with the use of dots and lines. Such a technique seems to lend a certain primitivity in his art that draws similarity to cave drawings, or echoes the methodology adopted by Gutai artists.
As a relatively latecomer in the art world, debuting at the age of 30, his later start in his career also means a more mature understanding and approach towards his own practice, with an appreciation for the need to constantly push forward and innovate as an artist. He acknowledged in an interview that the discovery of painting with his hands, along with switching from acrylic to oil was the biggest transition, an epiphany that came with a series of questions of why. As confessed in “Painting and Me”, a poem by Kato, questions that crystallised the purpose of his, or a painter’s, purpose:
Why do people paint? Why do people desire paintings? In my thirties, I began to have clarity about the role that painting played in my life.
Recurring humanoid creatures are the defining feature of both his paintings and sculptures, the latter of which he creates with materials such as granite, raw fabric, camphor wood and soft vinyl. These creatures, wide-eyed and expressionless, recur throughout his body of work, and appear striking and terrestrial, giving off an almost religious dimension.
Born and raised in the coastal prefecture Shimane in Japan, where some of Japan’s oldest religions are still widely practiced today, it is easy to trace the origins of Kato’s tactful fusing of figurative and folk elements in his art. The animistic quality of Kato’s work can be linked to the traditional Japanese Shinto belief that everything, even static objects like rocks and wood, are inhabited by a supernatural entity or spirit. Perhaps this explains, in a way, why his art is so inviting, beckoning attention from the human eye, as though the figures—albeit in their placid forms, mouth half-opened—appear almost vulnerable, patiently waiting to share a story of their existence.
The ambiguity of Kato’s works is a large part of what makes them so alluring. In multiple past interviews, the artist has refused to pre-determine the meaning of his work, believing it is up to the spectator’s own decisions. In a 2017 interview with auction house Christie’s, Kato stated that his influence draws from “everything I come in contact with while living.” Instead of pointing to a single source, he credits life and all its experiences as a whole as his muse.
After a five-year hiatus, Kato recently returns to New York to present a range of new and recent mixed-media sculptures, paintings, and a site-specific fabric tetrapod installation at Perrotin’s New York gallery. Prior to the opening on 4 March, we chatted with Kato via email about the evolution of his art practice, how he shifts between mediums for the sake of his motivation, and why the human being is his most important motif.
What were some of your earliest memories of making art? I was 30 years old [around the year 2000] and had been busy with my daily life, working part-time until then. Yet, I had a hunch that I could make a living through painting, and I was very excited to create artworks. Life as a part-timer was very hard, so up till now, I consider myself happy to be able to live by making paintings.
How has your artistic practice evolved since and where do you see it heading in the near future? I think it’s evolving steadily. My artistic practice has been able to update itself over time. I had been painting since the beginning, and have been experimenting with wood carving and painting at the same time since 2003. But later, around the age of 35, I hit a slump and could no longer paint. At that time, I took a break from painting and shifted the focus to sculpture [wooden sculptures]. As a result, I could escape and solve the problems I had been facing with painting. I could update my artistic practice due to consistently creating works that excite me, rather than getting stuck in a rut. When I try to keep up this exciting motivation, my works evolve independently. That’s why, even now, creating my work is as exciting and fun as it was in the early days.
Who are some of the artists that you admire the most? And how do they inspire you? I admire so many artists that I can’t even begin to answer, but I always say [Vincent] van Gogh, Francis Bacon, and Ito Jakuchu Ito as examples. Again, they are not the only ones, of course. I admire them so much because they understand painting, create original paintings in their own way, and are always trying to make their paintings better. They are always pushing forward in a fresh way. I respect that kind of high motivation, and it is not only them, but I respect such artists and get inspiration from them.
If you can travel back to any time in art history, which period would you choose and why? It isn’t easy. I’m having trouble deciding, but I think it would be the Edo period in Japan. That era was when many genius Japanese artists were active, [similar to] the Impressionists in Europe, and there were many artists I respect very highly. They were at the pinnacle of painting, including Japanese painting and ukiyo-e, so I would like to slip back to that era.
What is the most indispensable item in your studio? Music and coffee. When I’m working, I always listen to music. I’m also in a band with other artists, and since I’m in charge of the drums, I practice in the studio as well. Coffee is a must.
How did human-like figures become the main protagonist in your artworks? For me, painting the human figure is the most motivating at the moment. I can paint all kinds of animals such as dogs, cats, and even flowers, but the human figure is more difficult for the viewer to judge than those creatures. Animals and flowers make people think they are beautiful and cute, but when they see a painting of a human figure, they have a more challenging time because the motif is a human being. It is what motivates and inspires me to paint human beings. If I lost that enthusiasm, I think I would stop painting.
Your artworks are often very colourful, what is the role of colour in your art? Not only colour, but everything is necessary for a painting, from colour to shape to the line, and they are combined in a comprehensive way to create a work of art. Therefore, colour is only one piece of information. Colour is important and has a role to play, but I can’t explain colour alone.
Your oeuvre ranges from paintings and textiles, to sculptures and installations. How do you see the correlations between each medium? I am most interested in painting, and to master it, I am working with various mediums such as sculptures and textiles. I think the correlation is for the sake of painting and fundamentally mediated by my values. So, I will never stop creating paintings, but I may stop creating wooden sculptures, soft vinyl figures, fabrics, stones, and some other materials in the future if I no longer need them. Painting is difficult and challenging for me. On the other hand, I enjoy working on sculptures.
In what ways did the global pandemic affect your art making? Since I had been thankfully busy with a series of exhibitions for several years, until last year, it was good for my practice that my exhibition schedule was postponed, and I didn’t have the opportunity to go outside. It allowed me to spend some time relaxing and concentrate on my work and be creative. During the lockdown, I started building plastic models—a hobby I hadn’t done since I was a kid—for the first time in years, and I was able to develop it into a work of art and create a new series of works. But socially, life itself became inconvenient and stressful. I can only hope that things will settle down soon.
Could you share with us a bit about your forthcoming New York exhibition. I always think of an exhibition as a way to show the work I am working on now. I have been working on a series of fabric works for the past few years, using fabrics I collected in Japan, Mexico, Hong Kong, and France over the past three years, and have exhibited them in exhibitions in each country. This time, I will mix the fabric works I brought to New York with new ones to create an installation, which I am looking forward to seeing, as I have never seen it myself. I will also show my recent sculptures made of various materials such as soft vinyl, fabric, and stone, as well as the latest plastic model series that I discovered during the lockdown last year. It will be an exhibition showcasing recent to latest work.
4 March – 17 April 2021
Perrotin, New York