Critical Fieldwork 8

New developments in ‘double-line painting’

In the essay I wrote for the monograph nobuya HOKI drawings, published in 2004 (1), I indicated that there is a problem at once ancient and new at the root of Kyoto-based artist Nobuya Hoki’s drawings, which I called the integration of “line drawing” and “color,” and then I defined the distinctive features of Hoki’s drawings through three points of reference: the color theory of Matisse, 18th-century Edo paintings and the manga culture of post-war Japan.

In the case of Matisse, integration of line drawing and color was achieved by making the line an action that cuts apart a surface, with color emerging from the difference in values between the surfaces divided by that action. In contrast, the dual concepts of line drawing and color in Asian ink painting are part of a single continuum, rather than concepts that oppose one another, due to the distinctive nature of the medium of brush and ink. Being objects that are rendered with the brush and therefore at once abstract and concrete, characters, symbols and pictures all exist along the same continuum. Furthermore, ink lines are multicolored to begin with, as is apparent in the expression “sumi ink is five colored.” The line already holds the five colors as the brushstroke itself is a surface. The Edo-period paintings that Hoki himself sees as his own roots as a Japanese painter were part of an age of innovation in which artists attempted to create paintings at every point between the opposite ends of this continuum, and the manga-like outlines employed by Hoki in his own works were chosen to counteract the institution known as layer, in other words the flat image of animation.

untitled (2010). A “laughing” child (?) emerges from the entangled lines.

The starting point of Hoki’s drawings are the colored surface (such as colored drawing paper) and the colored line (such as colored pencil). Like Matisse he uses the line to divide the surface, but to introduce partial distortions to that surface rather than to make colors emerge. At the same time, because the line itself is colored, volume (depth) created by color emerges between the color of the background and the color of the outlines as a whole. In short Hoki’s drawings have exploited the rich territory where one can freely traverse the space between abstract and concrete images so that a landscape could at the same time be a tangle of colored lines and a portrait could at the same time be a lump of colored lines, through the development of a “dual system” of volume – using both the volume generated by the division of the paper surface and the volume generated by the tonal values of the surface color and the line color. The system of relationships between color and line increases in complexity through chromatic expansion by the addition of more colors. During the period between a solo exhibition at Taro Nasu Gallery in 2005 and around 2006, Hoki’s drawings achieved a distinctively polyphonic style with the addition of multicolor relational effects (such as interaction between complementary colors) to his dual system.

Nobuya Hoki’s practice can be defined as drawing in oil paint, using a special brush of his own design. For Hoki’s works it is important that there be a seamless continuum between drawing and painting. The union of drawing and painting is fundamental to the integration of line drawing and color. However, when he tried to develop the polyphony of drawing upon the canvas, probably the difference between the two – a difference that had been apparent before but was not considered to be severe at the time – appeared as a definite qualitative separation. In contrast to the hard, uniform lines drawn with colored pencil on a small sheet of colored drawing paper, the lines drawn with a brush on a large canvas showed dense or sparse paint depending on the flexibility of the canvas or the speed of the brushstroke, and line width varied from thick to thin. Polychromatic expression, which was functional in drawing, would not function with oil paints and brush on canvas. As a result of the instability of the color of the outlines, the tonal values between colors could not achieve enough strength for volume to emerge, so that “polychromatic painting” became shackled by the inherent characteristics of the support medium and the paint, in contrast to the freedom enjoyed by “polychromatic drawing.”

The artist himself was probably conscious of this problem – that his painting could not match the level of his drawing. Hoki’s change in support medium from canvas to aluminum panels was a step toward a solution. And nihonga, (double-line drawing), which Hoki adopted in the later half of 2006 (2), was the bold and profound technique that immediately solved the problem of ipponga (single-line drawing). First Hoki simplified a system that had grown too complex. By returning the support medium to white he freed the action of the lines from its tonal, value-based relationship with the background color. Because the base surface became less substantive, it made little difference in expression whether the base was a tableau (canvas or aluminum panel) or paper. Furthermore, as a result of the line gaining a measure of independence, the line broke free and its own elasticity created space, instead of creating volume by dividing the surface. The action of the liberated line, like doodles escaping from the margins of a school notebook (3), or paintings on Japanese fusuma sliding doors and room partitions, kept spreading without regard to the square frame. Conversely, the equation of nihonga (double-line drawing) with its homophone, Nihonga (Japanese painting), is nothing if not a snapshot cut loose by the action of a powerful single continuous line. In this way, even if each work has been drawn to a certain size such as that of a B5 sheet of paper or even two-by-three meters, in principle nihonga transcends the constraints of “size” and “frame.”

Next Hoki used, instead of multiple colors, one color disassembled chromatographically (for example, black ink broken down into blue and black, or purple ink broken down into blue and red). This is multicolored (currently duochrome) painting based not on adding one color to another, but on the opposite concept of dividing a single color. The two colors are applied to two brushes which are bound together to draw lines, hence the name nihonga (double-line drawing). The unstable characteristics of lines formed with paint, which was a problem with ipponga, could now be used deliberately as a particular type of doubled brushstroke resembling a ribbon or a trail left by a skier, and also integrated with diffusion and blurring. In the first place, a double line drawn with two colors derived from a single original color can look like a thick line casting a shadow of itself as it runs over the paper. In other words, the drawn line itself is creating depth of space through the three dimensionality produced by the color effect. Thus a true integration of drawing and painting, which were previously only closely related, was accomplished through the independence of the line reinforced by that three-dimensionality.

Furthermore, Hoki uses an unexpected technique to restore the relationship between the background color and the drawn line. This technique is diffusion and blurring, heretofore unseen in the artist’s works. From the beginning the double line created a double-vision effect, but by applying diffusion and blurring to a part of that action, he achieved a more pronounced out-of-focus effect, with which a kind of “photographic” space emerged. The independence of the lines became disrupted in just those areas, and depth emerged in the background space that had been merely the surface of the support medium.

The sequential system (through ca. 2006) composed of a) the volume created by the relationship between divisions of the paper surface, b) the volume that emerges from the tonal values’ relationship between background color and line color, and c) the relationship between lines of different colors was reconstructed through nihonga as a), b) and c*) the volume that emerges from the double lines of colors derived from one original color, as well as d) the volume arising through the use of diffusion and blurring (4).

untitled (2010). The effects of b x c* on a gray ground: lines have an engraved appearance.

After the above-mentioned integration of drawing and painting around the end of 2008, Hoki finds himself again in the “rich territory where one can freely traverse the space between abstract and concrete images” and, in his latest show at Taka Ishii Gallery in April 2010, he experimented with illusions – figurative and/or spatial – on the picture plane where the systems a), b), c*) and d) are interacting simultaneously.

The illusions in Hoki’s works fall into three categories. The first I) is an abstract sense of volume, or in other words an unevenness of pictorial space, arising from the action (a) of the lines flexibly dividing the surface. In a way this is an inevitable volume that arises automatically when one creates oblique lines on a piece of paper (5). One of the noteworthy aspects of the works in this exhibition is the multiple use of double lines of colors derived from one original color as a development of c*) – for example, the double nihonga in which two of the colors are derived from a cool color and two from a warm color. Because the double lines with their own shadows are doubly complex, the effect is of the line segments vibrating in unison on the surface of the painting. In other words, the volume that arose within the pictorial space I) is severely disturbed and in some cases nullified by this chorus of vibrations.

untitled (2010). c* x c*: the result of a double nihonga: vibration on the surface of the painting.

The second illusion II) is the “photographic” space that arises through the use of such techniques as diffusion and blurring. This is perhaps most easily understood if one imagines drops of water running across a printed image and penetrating only those areas (6). This illusion is essentially one of layering. This is because blurring and streaking conjure up an image of a “surface” that would normally be in focus, or in other words a screen serving as the support surface of the image. Here, the volume arising from the use of diffusion and blurring d) that until this point had had only optional meaning is injected more boldly, intervening violently with the chorus of vibrations on the painting’s surface. An element that is completely different from the surface is added, as a result of which layers emerge. This process is without doubt none other than collage. The d) in Hoki’s works does not add a visual effect in the form of blurring, but rather is a kind of collage, a subtractive collage in which paint is wiped from the painting’s surface.

untitled (deatil, 2010)

The third illusion III) is the illusion of image recognition. Marks on a wall look like the Japanese archipelago, and the viewer recognizes in the composition of scattered blue paper cutouts a “seated nude.” This is the illusion of the concrete originating from the abstract. The action of the autonomous lines in Hoki’s works are constantly giving rise consciously and unconsciously to illusions in the form of small animals, manga characters and landscapes.

untitled (2010). A “rabbit” emerges from the rollicking lines.

Generally speaking, when it comes to image recognition, people are most sensitive to “faces.” Things like small animals and characters appear or don’t appear depending on the individual viewer, but there is not a single person who cannot recognize a “face.” Aware of this, Hoki produced the “face” series as an experiment in generating illusions of various different “faces” from double nihonga line drawings in which the same actions are repeated.

From the “Face” series (2010)

Illusion I) arising from a), illusion II) arising from d), and illusion III) are partially parasitic. In nearly all of Hoki’s works, the three illusions appear simultaneously, with b) or c*) relating to these illusions in a positive or negative way by accentuating them or suppressing them. Hoki’s works, most of which are line drawings (7), look certain to continue to develop and evolve, like a group of plants undergoing an endless process of selective breeding, through various combinations of a) – d) and I) – III).

  1. “Colorful lines, linear colors – for Nobuya Hoki’s drawings” by Minoru Shimizu
    from nobuya HOKI drawings (Daiwa Radiator Factory Co. Ltd. + TARO NASU GALLERY, 2004).

  2. Nihonga (double-line drawing) in painting was first exhibited at the group show “Oriental Metaphor” in Seoul in December 2006, and first exhibited in Japan in 2007 (see pages 45, 46 and 47, Daiwa Radiator Factory Viewing Room Vol. 03). The actual technique of drawing with two bound inscribing tools is older, used since periodically about 1995, and was called nihonga (double-line drawing) by Nobuya Hoki. The drawing collection referred to above includes a nihonga work from 2001 (although it differs considerably from the artist’s current nihonga).

  3. See the fanzines Melbourne 1 (2006) and Irkutsk 2 (2007) in which Nobuya Hoki participated with the writers Yu Nagashima, Shin Fukunaga, Tomoka Shibazaki and designer Naoko Nakui. Humorous nihonga are drawn spanning the pages of the fanzines.

  4. The text up to here is based on my text Climax Forest – The Allure of “Two-line Drawing” (NIHONGA), Daiwa Press Viewing Room Catalogue No. 7, 2008.

  5. This should probably call to mind the dispute between Paul Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg over the rights and wrongs of diagonal lines that don’t intersect at right angles.

  6. With this in mind, it is clear that the origins of this diffusion effect lie in the “blind spot” series (in which round shapes were scattered randomly across the surface of each painting).

  7. From the “blind spot” series (2003)
    Hoki’s works include another strain – the “dot” series. The colors of the dots, their relationship with the background color, the sizes of the dots themselves, and the density of the arrangement of the dots give rise to a similar diversity.

Critical Fieldwork: Observations on Contemporary Art in Japan 1-6

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