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“Visible Darkness, Invisible Darkness”: Interview with Keiichi Tanaami

It is in Keiichi Tanaami's personality to take even the darkest of his life's experiences and turn them into positive expressions. The Psychedelic Japanese artist's sensational paintings of crazy characters engaged in the chaos of war has made him a leading art figure not just in Japan, but all over the world. We recently featured Tanaami's intensely visual work in Hi-Fructose Vol. 38, where he shared with us the origins of his art, and the deep effect that his wartime experiences has had on his psyche. In this rare interview, Tanaami tells us more about his dark past and the myriad of international influences on his work to date.

It is in Keiichi Tanaami’s personality to take even the darkest of his life’s experiences and turn them into positive expressions. The Psychedelic Japanese artist’s sensational paintings of crazy characters engaged in the chaos of war has made him a leading art figure not just in Japan, but all over the world. We recently featured Tanaami’s intensely visual work in Hi-Fructose Vol. 38, where he shared with us the origins of his art, and the deep effect that his wartime experiences has had on his psyche.

In his current solo show titled “Visible Darkness, Invisible Darkness”, Tanaami continues to present these powerful images from his memories as a child during World War II. The show marks the artist’s first major solo presentation in the United States, currently on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co in New York. Reflected in these largescale new pieces is Tanaami’s engagement with his contemporary artistic environment and continued reimagining of traditional Japanese iconography. Cherry blossoms, Guzei bridges and Buddha figures are featured alongside roosters and tigers, inspired by the work of Ito Jakachu, an 18th century scroll painter. Tanaami, now in his 80s, is making some of his most technically ambitious work to date. In this rare interview, Tanaami tells us more about his dark past and the myriad of international influences on his work to date.

HF: In the 1960s, you were living in the United States, where you spent time with the likes of Andy Warhol at his famous New York City studio. Tell us about where you are living now, and how the experience of living in different places has affected your work.

KT: Since I was born in Tokyo and had been brought up here, I have scarcely experienced to live in different places, but I am currently teaching at an art college in Kyoto, therefore have chances to visit there on regular basis. The spiritual atmosphere of Kyoto produced by the temples, gardens and old towns always takes me to a different world. I have been residing in Japan for long, so can not see it from that view point, but just I could say I like Japan most. Whenever I travel to foreign countries, I always realize this. Therefore I have never thought of residing in the other countries.

HF: What’s your strongest memory of your childhood? Can you remember the first time that you realized that you could draw?

KT: It is too long ago to remember when I first draw. The strongest memory in my boyhood was the war, namely that was the time when the US air force B-29 flew over Tokyo, to made the entire city in flames. I escaped into the air-raid shelter and was staring at such desperate view with bated breath, felt the heat almost burning my face, so I was always covering my face with a wet towel and enduring such fear as though it would be continued endlessly.

In my boyhood, I was always scolded by mother since I was drawing manga all day. I was not interested in the things other than watching movies and drawing pictures. The movies I watched were over 500 for a year, but most of those were a kind of B movies. My admiration for American culture was strengthened by the heroes in the western movies, glamorous beautiful blonde women, gorgeous diners, and the animations such as Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Popeye, which have greatly influenced me and even my current works.

HF: You have been credited as the pioneer of Pop Art in post-war Japan. Do you find that Pop Art in Japan differs from the rest of the world? How do you explain your affinity for working in this style of art?

KT: In my early stage, I was influenced by Pop art of US and UK, especially the methodology of Andy Warhol enabled to go across the boundaries between medias which fully overwhelmed me, thereby I dedicated myself to making experimental films and art books. A number of works of Pop art in US art magazines which I found in the imported book shop in Tokyo strongly stimulated my creativity. Compared with the sophisticated expression style of US’s or UK’s Pop art, Japanese Pop art seems more tied with local issues.

HF: As an artist who incorporates such a diversity of influences, are there specific artists or styles that you most identify with? Which mediums do you choose to work with these days?

KT: The art which I identify with is of Giorgio de Chirico and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, among Japanese art is of the painters in Edo period such as Soga Shohaku, Itoh Jakuchu and Hasegawa Tohaku. Especially, Jakuchu’s works are so elaborate and profound, which always overwhelm me.

What most inspired me is B movies in US. For example, Roy Rogers in the over-decorated shining costume riding the white house Trigger was as though moving pop art; the scene of Jane Russell almost exposing her breast and laying on hay in a glamorous pose was imprinted on my mind and that would never be wiped off; the mystery and fantasy of Creature from the Black Lagoon; and the skyscraper resounded with the footsteps of Lauren Bacall walking in high heels; these are all the sources of my inspiration.

The materials I use are acrylic paint, canvas, conté, crayon and so on, thereby not special materials, but some time I use the glass broken into pieces to be put on the surface of the canvas to make an effect produced by reflection of light. The inspirations for my works come from manga, porn books, tabloid magazines full of trivial scandalous articles, the portraits of murders or photos of catastrophic crime scenes placed on newspaper, namely that are not high culture stuffs.

HF: In your opinion, what role does the artist have in society? What do you hope that others will gain from viewing your art?

KT: The role of the artist is to embody the world which we have never seen nor perceived. There are some artists who create the works based on the theme referring the society with criticism or re-definition, but my works are rather engaged in embodying the inside of myself, which includes “the memory of the war in my boyhood”, “Sickness” and “Death” as the main theme.

My expression has an aspect of relieving myself, therefore, to spend everyday life with calm mind without getting involved in unjust situations among the society is the integral thing for my creation.

HF: What advice can you offer to young artists looking at your work?

KT: I have never made the piece which satisfied myself. Every time I make work, I feel unsatisfied with some points of the work, and make up my mind to make better work next time, thus turns out to be my motivation.

Keiichi Tanaami’s “Visible Darkness, Invisible Darkness” is now on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co in New York through April 23rd, 2016. Photos courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Interview translation courtesy of Nanzuka Underground, Japan.

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