Last week I visited the artist Brian Williams at his studio, sat down for a chat and had a sneak preview of his upcoming exhibition at Kiyomizu Temple. Brian is due to have a special one night exhibit of his parabolic paintings this Saturday evening (May 14th) – the first time ever in 1200 years that any art has been exhibited on the famous Kiyomizu balcony. Brian is famous for his magnificent landscapes and many of the exhibit paintings depict Japanese scenes, such as the Kegon Falls in Tochigi or Kiyomizu Temple itself. Others are from further afield: the moai statues of Easter Island for example, a misty isle in the Venetian lagoon, or the Iguazu Falls of South America, which as Brian tells it “make Niagra look like a trickle”. These paintings are big. They impress on you the wonder that the artist must have felt as he viewed the original scene. But of all of them, the painting that has the most impact when you enter Brian’s studio is of a soaring, white, Himalayan mountain range with Everest at its apex. Gazing up at it you can almost feel a cold blast of wind from those snowy peaks.
Brian first painted Everest in 1995 when on a visit to Nepal. During a trek to the Gokyo Peak, he was, by his own admission, clowning around and jumping about with some children when he managed to rupture his knee ligament and had to be evacuated. The injury turned out to be fortuitous. Two days after, there was an avalanche that killed 24 members of his party, including his good friend the cameraman Kajiwara Tatsuo. Asked about it, Brian says that he counts himself very lucky, but you can tell that he still carries the sadness of that loss.
Like the Everest painting most of the works in the upcoming parabolic exhibition are based on works previously done on a flat surface. Brian says this reinterpretation helps him to understand what exactly makes a painting parabolic. Essentially, Brian’s parabolic paintings are painted on a curved surface of alternating concave and convex waves. “The human eye is curved,” says Brian. “These paintings follow the trajectory of the eye as it tracks a scene and takes it in. It is an attempt to recreate the sensation of viewing a landscape through the external shape and curvature of the panel.” He told me how he first came up with the idea when he was out painting a scene in rural Shiga. In 2007 he bought a bucket truck (a type of mobile aerial work platform) in order to give himself some elevation when painting. Up high in the bucket one day, he dropped a brush, and as he lowered himself to retrieve it and simultaneously followed the brush with his eyes as it flowed downstream, his vision was caught up in the natural sweep of the landscape in a great curving arc and breadth of vision that no flat surface could depict. It was this revelation that led to his creation of this new form of parabolic representative art. “These paintings have a depth illusion that no flat painting can match, they have a breadth of field that no flat painting can match. They have a sense of presence, I think, that no flat painting can match.” Indeed standing before one of these parabolic works, the sensation is very much like standing before a portal into the original landscape, the curvature of the canvas naturally pulling your vision out of yourself, into and beyond the scene.
“I’ve always disliked straight lines,” says Brian, “But this idea of shaping the canvas to express the sensation of viewing a scene is completely new – and at the same time completely old.” Last June Brian visited the Altamira caves in Spain and viewing the cave paintings there, he realised that his parabolic works had ancient precedent. In the deepest recesses of the caves, prehistoric artists had used the natural curvature of the walls to give their totem animals a unique visual depth and dimension. “They come alive!” he says excitedly. This is the same sense of 臨場感 (rinjokan or being there) that Brian now strives to attain in his work.
Clearly Brian has travelled a lot in his life – and he began early. Born in 1950 to American missionary parents he was raised in Peru and Chile until his teens. His life there wasn’t easy: “Growing up bicultural you are neither nor. It’s not until you are an adult that the advantages become more apparent. The ability to empathize… Bicultural kids are very attuned to others.” Sent to high school in California, he was amazed by the facilities and resources at the schools there after the simple mission school he had attended previously, and he greedily grabbed at every learning opportunity available. Until the age of 16 he thought of himself as scientifically inclined (“I was gonna be a marine biologist!”), but on being exempted from Spanish class due to his natural fluency, he took an art class instead. At that time he says, his life turned 180 degrees and he knew that he wanted to be an artist: “My life has basically been a string of good luck,” he laughs, “from that point right on up through rupturing my knee!”
I asked Brian, what it was that made him stay and settle in Japan after all his travels. At first his answer was elusive, “Well, it’s where I landed and built a career and it’s the diet that suits me most. And it’s also ideally suited to travel the world, especially in Asia…” However, the more he thought about it, the more he had to say about Japan itself. “There’s a lot to like about Japan. I like the fact that “I” is not an important word in the Japanese language. There’s also a difference in attitude to the arts, with a lot more respect for art and culture… And then there’s the Japanese diet. An incredibly rich biodiversity, coupled with a historical record of famines, plus human ingenuity has resulted in a very diverse cuisine that is both healthy and delicious.” He also admits that there isn’t much to pull him back to America. Back in 1972, he dropped out of school two months before graduation and got himself a one-way ticket to Japan in large part because he was sick at heart at the Vietnam War. On looking at the wars the USA has waged over the last decade, Brian says sadly, not a lot has changed.
However, in addition to the family and friends that Brian has made here over the years, it is perhaps his art that keeps him in Japan. “I have a sense that, as a landscape painter, I’ve never really gotten it! Of course Japan has four seasons, but there are so many seasons within those seasons, such as the cherry blossom season that passes so quickly. And now it is the season of the new green. The landscape is always new and changing and there’s still enough left unspoiled to keep me occupied.” And this is Brian’s mission: to record what is disappearing. He laments the rural architecture that has been lost and the waterways ruined under a “paroxysm of construction”. During the 39 years Brian has lived here 95% of the thatched roof houses have disappeared and countless rivers and canals have been lined with concrete. Brian however, as a keen environmentalist, does not believe this process is irreversible. In issue 68 of Kyoto Journal, he wrote a piece reimagining the Japanese concept of 原風景 (gen-fukei or primal landscape), a Japanese standard of natural beauty that also in modern times contains a feeling of nostalgia and loss. In Brian’s view, this notion of gen-fukei represents a stable ecosystem with plenty of biodiversity that can also sustain a human population. “Such landscapes are inherently beautiful. If we look at a landscape and it seems fruitful and bountiful then we sense that richness, that stability and balance as beauty.” And if you redefine gen-fukei in these ecological terms then it becomes possible to talk about regeneration or shin-gen-fukei. Brian himself has taken part in the replanting of reed beds in Lake Biwa, lives in his own 200 year-old converted farm house and is part of a grass roots environmental group that over the years has fought and stopped projected golf courses, dams, a tower, an airport and other follies that threatened to despoil the landscape he loves. Nevertheless, he admits, “As a landscape painter, it is painful to be in Japan; to see in my mind’s eye what was and to see before me what is”. I asked him if he ever paints the destruction as well as those genfukei-type scenes of pristine natural beauty and indeed he does sometimes paint tetrapods and rusty barrels (he showed me some of his anti-war paintings too), but naturally these works tend not to sell so well.
I enjoyed talking with Brian. He is a great artist of course, but he is also a very nice chap with a lot of interesting things to say and a few hours in his company was a real pleasure. I’d like to thank him for taking the time out to talk to me, busy as he was with preparations for next Saturday’s event.
Brian’s exhibition at Kiyomizu Temple is one night only on Saturday May 14th from 8:00〜9:30 pm. Admission to the exihibit on the balconies is free but an entry ticket to the temple is required. It promises to be a very special evening. And, incidentally, he got his introduction to Kiyomizu from the very doctor who fixed up his knee after that life-saving accident back in 1995! Brian’s luck certainly hasn’t run out yet!
UPDATE: Here are some pictures from Brian’s exhibit at Kiyomizu Temple on May 14th 2011. A wonderful event!
To learn more about Brian and view more of his art, please visit his website: http://brianwilliamsart.com.
Also of interest: The Artist Daniel Kelly.
And soon to come: The Artist Sarah Brayer.