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Makoto Fujimura: An Introduction to His Work

November 1, 2010

Boston-born and now New York City-based artist Makoto Fujimura has gained an ascendancy among artists working in contemporary art, and particularly among evangelical Christians. Why Fujimura’s work strikes a chord with art viewers lies in the unique visual language with which he speaks and the unique perspective on spirituality that he communicates. His work appeals to postmodern sensibilities both aesthetically and theologically.

The suggestion that Fujimura’s work embodies a postmodern aesthetic lies in the inherent eclecticism of his chosen style. Fujimura is a graduate of the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, from which he graduated with an MFA in 1989, followed by further specialized training. Fujimura was trained in the tradition of Nihonga, which literally means “Japan-painting” and refers to techniques and themes that characterized Japanese visual arts dating back over a thousand years. Nihonga is characterized by the use of mineral pigments mixed in an animal glue medium, generally applied to silk and special papers. It is a water-based medium of art, in contrast to an oil-based one, and this accounts for the similarity in style and effect to Western watercolour painting.

An early work of Fujimura’s exemplifies the techniques and themes associated with this tradition of Japanese art:

This painting, entitled Aijo, or Compassionate Love (1987), is a work consisting of three panels of mineral pigments applied onto Kumohada paper, an especially durable hand-made paper stretched onto wooden frames. The subject matter of the two birds reflects a longstanding genre of Japanese painting and is composed so that the backs of the two birds form a heart. The central panel is clearly representational, while the two accompanying panels create an almost colour-field effect.  The two side panels provide balance and contrast that focus one’s attention onto the central panel.

The other language with which Fujimura communicates his vision is seen in the two side panels of Aijo. The abstract dimension of Fujimura’s work is derived from the Western tradition, particularly his adoption of techniques drawn from Abstract Expressionism, a visual language associated with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Fujimura’s art draws primarily on the work of Jewish artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. These artists sought an iconoclastic language to express what in effect is a religious orientation appropriate for a post-Holocaust world. Both the Japanese tradition and Abstract Expressionism are visual languages aimed not so much at the replication of imagery but the forceful expression of feelings or as Fujimura puts it an “essentialization of reality.”  And so we might consider Fujimura’s series on fire, as for example Golden Fire II (mineral pigments and old leaf on Kumohada; circa 2005):

For Fujimura, fire is both purifying and destructive, an element both of God’s grace and of human fury. Fujimura was only blocks away from the World Trade Center on 9/11. His art frequently reflects his own navigation between the world-to-come and the world-as-it-is.

Fujimura describes his work as a “hybrid of Fra Angelico and [Mark] Rothko,” an effort of “trying to bring Fra Angelico’s weighty beauty and Rothko’s profound meditations into this new century.” His work provides an “aesthetic sanctuary” where viewers are invited into a more contemplative posture of spirituality by art that is characterized by a “halo effect” of gold-leafed craftsmanship. There is something of the icon about Fujimura’s work, both in their flat-surface orientation as well as in the thematic inter-play of the God’s transcendence and immanence.

These dimensions of Fujimura’s work may explain both the rationale and the paradox of the attraction of Fujimura’s work in an otherwise conservative community of art viewers. His is a welcome presence, however explained, because of the intrinsic qualities of the work and the uplifting motivations of the artist.

James McCullough is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews.  His research explores the relationship between works of visual art and spiritual formation.  Fujimura is one artist, among several, whose work Jim will discuss in his dissertation.  Jim lives on a farm near St Andrews with his wife and four children.
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