As an artist and critic best known for his publication Abstract Art As Impact: Analysis of Modern Art (Aki Shobō, 2018), Kenjirō Okazaki (b. 1955, Tokyo, Japan) has developed a wide range of interdisciplinary practices that transcend conventional artistic genres and classifications of art, including architecture, literary theory, painting, relief, sculpture, robotics, and contemporary dance. Carrying on the investigations of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Paul Klee, Tomoyoshi Murayama, Saburo Hasegawa, and John Cage, at the root of Okazaki’s thinking is the exploration and reconstruction of time and space at the foundation of human perception. The singularity of time and space that emerges from the postmodernist fragment (as opposed to the all-encompassing, all knowing whole of modern perception) has long been the subject of Okazaki's paintings. In particular, Okazaki’s thinking is akin to idealist philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart’s theory of “C-Series” network from his book Unreality of Time (1908), which describes temporality as a sequence without order, in which new networks are generated from fragments that detach from a coherent whole and continue to link to other fragments. This C-Series network theory applies to the various facets of Okazaki’s practice, but are most clearly articulated in his individual works, comprised of fragments that can be reconfigured to open up new “passages” or narratives that promote a constant renewal of perception.
Over the past three decades, Okazaki has been developing a unique series of paintings that expands the vocabulary of these abstract passages. For example, in his early diptychs, abstract fragments are read as gestural motifs, generating sequences (or sentences, in literary terms) with temporal (and spatial) disruptions as in music and dance. By organizing near identical gestures, or motifs, in these works, one can say they are careful lessons in observation that challenge the limits of our perception. By looking back and forth between two canvases, a new emergence from our visual perception arises. One is forced to experience a sudden reflection. The fragments that repeat on each canvas like a single word or afterimage generate a different context each time, reminding us of something else. The memories generated by his paintings extend from his own daily life to all of human history as well as art history, nature, and the universe. Like a drop of ink in water, the memories are a chain of indexes occurring one after the other—this unfolding appears as a unique event each time a new viewer encounters a painting. Therefore, each painting can always be singular.
Okazaki's painterly passages are specifically manifested by a tactile paint, the mixing of acrylic paints that reflect light within and onto the canvases through a wet, gel-like transparency and the thick textural application of pastel pigments. The sequence that emerges from these tactile indexes is also reflected in his titles, which are written as long paragraphs. The title is no longer a title but an independent series or work in itself. This interplay between painting, memory, and place is explored in his intimately scaled painting series, Zero Thumbnail, and more recently, TOPICA PICTUS. Developed out of our shared isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, each abstract painting in TOPICA PICTUS is accompanied by a short essay and reference image that represents the artist’s journey through the history of painting and objects that allow for interactive encounters that continue to generate between these three bodies: painting, text, and reference.
Since his artistic debut forty years ago, Okazaki has also been well-known for his relief works, a series of geometric fragments (akin to small axonometric structures) installed in relation to the surrounding architectural space. The reliefs and spatial expression between them when installed together transcends the actual work themselves. Just as the natural light alters the mood of the installation throughout the day, each series—which possess titles of specific places in Tokyo as well as abstract numbers—triggers an individual’s spatiotemporal perceptions of concrete memories and places, and impressions derived from the palette. These spaces, formed by the geometrical structures between each of the reliefs, thus conjure immeasurable, allegorical spaces of memory.
As Okazaki tells it, “We sense something, we feel something. When we examine why we feel the way we do, we invariably arrive at the multiplicity of structures that have haunted our mind and built the relationship between our mind and the world (external world). One will realize that they are nothing more than a mere reflection of the intellectual constructs that existed before the mind and the world (the external world) appeared. Interestingly, a work of art gives us a chance to realize this.”
Kenjirō Okazaki lives and works in Tokyo. His work was prominently featured in independent curator Mika Yoshitake’s 2019 two-part exhibition at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Parergon: Japanese Art of the 1980s and 1990s, the artist’s first presentation on the West Coast since his inclusion in the seminal 1994 exhibition curated by Alexandra Munroe, Japanese Art after 1945: Scream Against the Sky (Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, Japan; traveled to the Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA). His work has been exhibited in institutional solo exhibitions including at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan (2020); Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Aichi, Japan (2019, 2020); Kaze-no-sawa Museum, Miyagi, Japan (2016); BankArt29, Yokohama, Japan (2014); Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan (2009); Sezon Museum of Modern Art, Nagano, Japan (2002); and Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Agen, Agen, France (1994). His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Tokyo, Japan; Chiba City Museum of Art, Chiba, Japan; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima, Japan; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan; Museum of Modern Art, Toyama, Japan; National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan; Sezon Museum of Modern Art, Nagano, Japan; and Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota, Japan; among many other museums and public collections.
Okazaki has wielded great influence within and beyond the field of art. His publication, Renaissance: Condition of Experience (Chikuma Shobō, 2001/Bungeishunjū Gakugei Library, 2014) was praised by critic and curator Akira Asada as “the birth of the historical text.” A revered professor, he founded and directed the Yotsuya Art Studium in 2004, a base for new educational and creative activities. In 2014, he received the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (SARF) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In 2019, he won the Ministry of Education Award in Fine Arts for his publication Abstract Art As Impact: Analysis of Modern Art (Aki Shobō, 2018). He is currently a visiting professor at Musashino Art University and University of Tokyo.
Kenjirō Okazaki: Retrospective Strata
Parergon: Japanese Art of the 1980s and 1990s