Tsuyoshi Maekawa at the Saatchi Gallery

Edd Elliott

Seventy years on and it still doesn’t feel like we’ve completely accepted Abstract Expressionism. Remove names like Pollock or Rothko and the movement as a whole still appears to linger at the doorway of being canonized where its predecessors have been ushered dutifully through. To the lay person certainly there is still some skepticism as to whether the daubed and flecked canvases represent a revolutionary approach or a Dulux salesman’s violent sneeze. So here comes another puzzle to test our known unknowns – or is it just unknown unknowns? – the Saatchi Gallery’s temporary exhibition of Tsuyoshi Maekawa.

Maekawa was a prominent member of the abstract Gutai movement, and one of the Japan’s most notorious artists throughout the 1950s and 60s. His work is best known for eclectic compositions that combined wild brushwork and colour with unusual material surfaces. The unconventional painter was a protégé to Kazuo Shiraga, Japan’s most acclaimed Abstract Expressionist, who was famed for his quite literal wrestles with his canvases to create provocative, inky splurges.
Although less performative than Shiraga, Maekawa shared his rebellious mentor’s taste for the physical. The Saatchi Gallery describes the avant-garde devotee’s aims as to create “artworks as matter rather than image”, and the works assembled by the exhibition bare out this abrupt manifesto. The 14 collected pieces attach burlap fabric to canvases forming three-dimensional surfaces. To the viewer, the compositions take on a tactile edge, each an upturned undulating landscape of creases and craggy rips and tears. On top of these brick-a-brack terrains are ladled blotches of smudged paint. The colour is eccentrically applied, and at times the burlap appears so heavily lathered the fibre material might as well have been unceremoniously dragged through a paint puddle.

Tsuyoshi Maekawa Untitled (A33) 1963 Oil and burlap on canvas.
It’s untidy, unfettered and unclean, and it couldn’t be more of a contrast to the Saatchi’s sterile white Lower Gallery, the epitome of the modern art showroom cliché. Anyone wandering in through the Sloane Square salon’s grand neo-classical frontage might wonder why they were staring at something that looked more the product of the building’s mudded front lawn – but it’s the residue and the neglected that appears to delight Maekawa. His paintings offer no depictions, no subject: the viewer is forced to look at the murky materials. What are they? How have they been made? Why burlap? The textile’s grainy texture constantly reminds the onlooker that this is a surface, not an “image”; a material, not a representation. In places, oil paint covers the cloth so thickly that the heavy weave is no longer visible. Instead of worn threads the dense coating delivers a matt finish, or at times an acrylic gloss. When we are allowed to see the battered canvas below the burlap it looks almost like wood so vigorously has it been worked over by brush strokes. This is the Japanese artist’s material transformation. The invisible canvas that makes up classic painting has been spurned: everything is on show here.
Maekawa’s use of colour might remind some of Pollock, or Shozo Shimamato for an Asian audience. The streaky lines and unruly blobs roam across the works untethered. While the flecks can glide above the canvas like his predecessor’s drip styles, paint for Maekawa can equally drag his beleaguered shapes down into the sewers. The thick greens and browns of several untitled pieces are painstakingly heavy and seem to retreat into walls behind like damp stains.
And it doesn’t stop there. The Gutai artist’s grotty hazes begin to toy with perspective. What appears to be the foreground often lies sunken in the canvas’s three-dimensional structure. The comparatively sanguine 1967 G 80-s – all of the collected works avoid titles or descriptions – shows an array of corrugated creases on a pink canvas. While most jut vertically down, a few curve round in the rough form of a lady’s leg. The fleshy limb immediately jumps out of the work, relegating the upright lines to the rear. Step a yard closer, however, and the painting returns to the flat. It’s all just ridges and ravines, the highs and lows of folded fabric. It was just an illusion, the rebellious expressionist seems to taunt: the paintings real depth is much less attractive. 

Tsuyoshi Maekawa 1967 G 80-2 1967 Oil and cotton on canvas.
Tsuyoshi Maekawa won’t be for everyone. Half the gallery’s attendees appeared to push round this relatively small exhibition in less than ten minutes. The details that fascinate Maekawa are features traditional art asks you to skim over in a glance, and to some there won’t be much here to hold the gaze. But if you can take the time to confront these often unattractive works you will be rewarded. The avant-garde artist appears to revel in thrusting himself down into the muddy foundations that hold up more conventional representation and rolling his burlap sacks in amongst the muck. “Gutai” translates to “cement”, and the movements’ title fits its second son well. Rarely has the abstract felt quite so squidgy, sludgy and physical – and it’s worth seeing while it’s here.
See Tsuyoshi Maekawa at the Saatchi Gallery between 24 February - 14 May 2017. Admission is free. Find out more here.

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