This is the second part Artitute’s conversation with the founder of Nikei Fine Art, Mr Hiroshi Kato, and three of the artists featured in their debut exhibition, Professor Nobu Yamanaka, Professor Jun Ogata, and Ryo Yoshikawa.

Click here to read the first part of the interview. In this part, we discuss the universality of abstract art as a visual form of communication.

[The interview was conducted with the aid of a translator, and has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.]

Yen Phang for Maybe I can ask Mr Hiroshi Kato [the founder of Nikei Fine Art] a question. I noticed that you have a long history with and a strong passion for art. What led you to focus on abstract art?

HIROSHI KATO: To understand the meaning of abstract art we have to start from its definition, what abstract art is.

It can be divided into two groups – the first is expression, the second is description. In the case of expression, it isn’t concerned too much about any particular shape or form. So for instance Jackson Pollock and his peers… to them, it is not because they think that a certain colour or a certain shape is very important. They just paint according to what they want to express. Sam Francis also belongs to the same school of thought.

When it comes to a descriptive type of abstract art, it can still be divided into two groups – external or internal. When it’s external, that means it’s concrete description. If they want to express something internal, it may still be further subdivided into two sub-groups – the first subgroup starts with a shape they deform. The second subgroup has nothing to do with shape… they go directly to the artist’s inner state, without reference to any shape.

So there are three stages – the first level of categorization divides abstraction into description or expression; Description can then be divided into outer or inner description; inner description may be further subdivided into those with shape, and those without shape.

For instance for Picasso, there must be a shape first. In the case of Professor Yamanaka, his paintings have nothing to do with shape, and they go immediately ‘inside’. With Professor Ogata it is also about the same, without shape. There is some emphasis on colour, but that is not definite. It goes directly into what they want to express.

The Rhyme, by Nobu Yamanaka
The Rhyme, by Nobu Yamanaka, courtesy of Nikei Fine Art

Mr Yoshikawa’s artwork is between having shape and being without shape. It may have some shape per se, but it moves being having a specific shape, so I also feel that his paintings also belong to abstraction.

So when it comes to abstract painting, it should be acceptable anywhere you go. When it comes to something with a definite shape, it can only be appreciated at the location where it is known to the viewer. It would be difficult to bring a famous artist like Yokogawa to Singapore, as people won’t be familiar with the context of his paintings. They are very good masterpieces, but the paintings are ‘concrete’. On the other hand, when it comes to abstract art, it is universal, and you can bring it anywhere. That’s the reason why I choose to show abstract painting here.

Artitute: Which leads really well into my next question for the artists. Given that you work with such universal themes and imagery, do you feel like your Japanese tradition and background has influenced in any way your current practice or style?

Professor Nobu Yamanaka: I think that many feel that we are quite oriental, quite Japanese. It doesn’t mean that we want to attract the viewers so we make it oriental. That is not the case. But being in that environment, it comes out automatically …. being in the Japanese environment, what we paint will carry something Japanese.

In my case, my painting may also carry some elements of the Japanese … all the buildings and the environment and the sceneries. Of course there is also a lot of influence from outside of Japan, but in my case these are irrelevant. I paint according to what I think I want to express.

I emphasise simplicity actually. Oriental painters often place emphasis on simplicity, and the spiritual aspect is also quite marked.

Professor Jun Ogata: Mr Yamanaka has expressed everything I want to say [everyone laughs] In my case, rather than being influenced from the outside, it’s a more about the kind of environment you grow up in. The environment is important since it is part of your childhood.

My grandfather was also an artist. He painted the mountains, the trees, the scenery in the past. So my paintings are also influenced by what my grandfather did, but it’s mainly my own feeling, my own expression which I put into my painting.

I lived for a while in New York, and during that time I used to visit the museums, where a lot of the African Americans were active. I come across African Americans who were particularly into jazz music, and the culture that was brought to New York.

Many of my paintings reflect what is available in Japan, Japan’s history, Japan’s culture of course all the environment is very important, for instance the Zen garden. If somebody wants to convey the message of the beauty of Zen garden to foreigners, if you do it literally it is very very difficult, because they don’t belong to that culture. But if you translate it into abstract paintings, then it really can communicate to many people.

So by doing that, they don’t just see that this is a Zen garden… Other people may say it is something very Japanese, ‘I don’t know what but it’s something very Japanese’ and if that can be achieved, then the objective of the painter has been met.

So finally I want to say, of course because in this modern world we have a lot of influences, but this is irrelevant to whatever you feel inside… whatever you want to express, you should do it.

Garden / Shadow of Flowers by Jun Ogata
Garden / Shadow of Flowers by Jun Ogata, courtesy of Nikei Fine Art

Mr Ryo Yoshikawa: As far as Japan is concerned, because I am Japanese I can get rid of Japanese-ness. [Everyone laughs.] But regardless of whether the viewer is Japanese or from other parts of the world, if they can understand it, and they can enjoy it, then it’s okay. If they can appreciate it then the goals of the painter are achieved, regardless of language, race religion.

Prof Yamanaka: To painters like us the Japanese tradition is still embedded in our mind. Although there are a lot of influence from outside, it’s irrelevant when we create something. It’s still from our heart and from the environment where we were brought up… from the things we see and the landscape and also our emphasis on water … so the material we use can be mixed, a combination of tools employed by both Japanese and foreign painters. But the Japanese tradition is still embedded in our minds.

Artitute: Thank you so much for your time, and we are happy that you have come to Singapore!

The works of Nobu Yamanaka, Jun Ogata, and Ryo Yoshikawa are currently on show at Nikei Fine Art, in the gallery’s inaugural exhibition “Kaomise” which runs until 4th November.

Nikei Fine Art is located at Raffles Hotel Arcade, 328 North Bridge Road #01-34, Singapore 188719. Their opening hours are Sun to Wed 10:30am – 8:00pm, and Thu to Sat 10:30am – 9:00pm.

You may find out more about Nikei Fine Art and their artists at